When USA Today columnist Christine Brennan questioned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday about his reaction to former linebacker Chris Borland’s retirement after just one season in the NFL, the commissioner answered diplomatically. Such responses were the theme of the afternoon when Goodell fielded questions from Brennan and Medill students at the McCormick Foundation Center.
“It was a personal decision,” Goodell said. “Players make those determinations all the time – whether they want to play football or not – for a variety of reasons. You respect them. You understand them, and those are decisions future players will make also.”
Though Borland’s premature retirement might not in and of itself spell trouble for the NFL, it could represent something of a credibility issue for the league. The lack of trust pertaining to team and league medical personnel, illustrated by Borland’s consultation of former players and non-NFL experts instead, indicates that certain players don't believe the NFL has their best interests at heart – an issue that ties into the debate about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in athletes who sustain repeated brain trauma.
On Wednesday, Goodell skirted around this very issue, identifying a question about NFL doctors underestimating CTE's effects as unfair. The commissioner instead addressed what he sees as misconceptions surrounding the safety of the game.
"There are a lot of facts out there that have not been characterized properly,” Goodell said, also noting that he would “play football again in a minute.” The commissioner also mentioned the NFL’s efforts beyond just its own professional athletes.
“We’re not just focusing on the NFL, we’re focusing on youth football,” he said. “"We're trying to change the way the game is played on all levels."
Brennan also questioned Goodell about where the NFL currently stands in terms of combatting domestic violence, an issue that connects the two. Brennan was one of two journalists granted an interview with the commissioner in the wake of the TMZ-released video in September last year of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City casino elevator.
Brennan asked the commissioner on Wednesday whether he is “happy where the National Football League is now in terms of combatting domestic violence.”
“Well, I think we’re in a much better place, but we’re not done,” Goodell responded. “We still have things we want to accomplish and things we want to improve on. We will continue to make this an important initiative not just for the NFL, but to make a difference in the broader society.
“This is a societal issue. This is something we all have to deal with. We’re going to do our part, we’re going to make sure we get it right for the NFL.”
Specifically, the NFL has seeked to educate all of its employees about domestic violence issues, as Goodell noted. The league is also making efforts to better control players' off-the-field activities through the personal conduct policy it adopted in December of last year.
On top of domestic violence and player safety, Wednesday's conversation bounced from issues like the role of journalism in the NFL to the league’s expansion in the United Kingdom and Los Angeles to the prevalence of women in the NFL. Goodell also fielded questions about the league’s marijuana policy and the name of the Washington football team, the latter of which prompted one of the commissioner's more notable responses of the afternoon. When Brennan asked Goodell directly whether he considers the Redskins team name to be a racial slur, Goodell gave the most diplomatic answer possible, telling Brennan, “It’s the name of a football team.” But in response to a follow-up question about the same issue, Goodell went further.
“In that context,” he responded, “it’s not being used as a racial slur.”