LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came to town to teach mothers how to tackle safely.
I am not making this up.
The event, sponsored by the league and the Chicago Bears, was titled "Football Safety Clinic for Moms." The intent, no doubt, was to ease fears about letting their sons play the game. The timing was nothing if not fortuitous.
Last month, studies by researchers at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences concluded that football players as young as 7 suffer hits to the head every bit as traumatic as those suffered by high school and adult players. Last week, an HBO Real Sports-Marist poll headlined "Youth Football Takes Hard Hit" found that 56 percent of respondents said the risk of long-term brain injury would be an important factor in deciding whether to allow their son to play football.
Five kids aged 16 or younger have died playing high school football since August, two from brain injuries and a third suffered a broken neck. More than 25,000 football players from 8 to 19 years old seek treatment for concussions at emergency rooms every year.
None of that was mentioned during the breezy, 80-minute clinic.
It began with an introduction from Goodell, followed by remarks from TV talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, who's a heart surgeon by training but needed no coaching on how to sell the game. Maybe because he's already featured in an NFL promotional campaign that aired during last weekend's games called "Together We Make Football."
Oz was followed by athletic trainers who stressed the importance of properly feeding and hydrating young football players, and they were followed by Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, who is the Bears neuropsychological consultant, but not a medical doctor. She presented checklists for recognizing concussion symptoms and recommendations for treatment, but suggested on balance that "boys like to hit things" and without proper channels for their aggression, they might do other things like drive too fast or drink too much.
It made me wonder how much more havoc NFL players might wreak if they weren't playing, but then came time for the 200 or so moms to line up and learn the tackling techniques taught as part of USA Football's "Heads Up Football" program.
"I line up my front foot right in the middle of my target, and why?" one of the instructors said during a demonstration, without waiting for an answer.
"So I can put my head to the side and make the tackle safely."
Never mind that the improving science on concussions increasingly suggests all those measures above combined — and applied at every level — will reduce the numbers only so much, let alone the way the game is played in the NFL.
At one point, I walked up to Goodell and tried to ask how much safer he believed football could actually be made. Instead of answering, he looked away and a burly member of his security detail inserted himself between us and said "No questions."
Fortunately, though, Goodell had time for the moms. And after 20 minutes of practice, they were stoked. When they returned to their seats for a final 20-minute question-and-answer session with a panel that included the commissioner, Pieroth and several former Bears, one of the first questions was:
"My son is 5 years old. I see linebacker in his future. When is too soon for him to start playing?"
Understandably, several panel members assumed she was asking about flag football. When people in the crowd made clear there were tackle football leagues in the area for kids that young, the consensus on the panel was that each family had to make its own determination.
Suffice it to say that more than one expert would disagree. Dr. Robert Cantu, who is co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy — where researchers have found CTE in 49 of the 50 brains of deceased NFL players they've autopsied — argues against youngsters starting contact sports like tackle football and hockey before age 14.
A year ago, Cantu co-authored a book laying out the case for young kids to play flag instead of tackle football. He said with enough information, parents would come around.
"They haven't understood the dangers their kids are being subjected to," he said at the time. "Once they do — and it won't happen in weeks, or months, maybe even years — they'll demand changes."
What they got Tuesday night instead was slickly packaged, celebrity-packed reassurances that if they keep their eyes open and fingers crossed, football is less risky than riding a bike. That's statistically true, except you'd have to keep crashing the bike over and over to simulate the multiple hits to the head that every football player compiles the longer he plays— and too many go unreported and untreated.
Barely two months ago, the NFL settled a lawsuit involving 4,500 former players for $765 million, a sum many observers considered paltry given the terrible and irreversible mental decline many of those players suffered. You might think, in the wake of that and after the suicides of popular former players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, the league would lay low on the concussion issue for a little while.
But credit Goodell with chutzpah. He's already out recruiting the next generation and tackling the safety concerns the same way the NFL conducts all of its business.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke.