In an open letter to NFL fans, commissioner Roger Goodell emphasizes improvements and continued attention to player safety, including neurological disorders and prevention of head injuries.
Diagnosing and treating concussions and head trauma remain hot topics. Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor remained in a Week 4 game after taking seven seconds to get to his feet and not immediately being evaluated. He was eventually replaced but admitted the next game he didn't remember the hit.
In the wake of another suicide -- former Chargers safety Paul Oliver died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, taking his own life in front of his wife and sons in September -- and a forthcoming investigative book that alleges the NFL worked for decades to cover up the connection between football, head trauma and its lasting impacts, Goodell penned a thorough reminder of the NFL's ongoing attention to neurotrauma.
"Increased safety for players has been an essential part of the evolution of football dating back to its early days more than 100 years ago," Goodell wrote. "We are proud that the game is safer and more exciting today than ever, but we are never satisfied. In keeping with our history, we are committed to pursuing a path that ensures the rewards of playing football continue to far outweigh the risks. Led by our Competition Committee and medical advisors, every year we will look for new ways to make the game better and safer.
"There have been numerous safety-related rules changes going back decades: from the 1970s when we eliminated the head slap, to the 80s when we eliminated clubbing, to the 90s when we increased protection for defenseless players, to the 2000s when the horse collar tackle was made illegal. When we identify dangerous techniques, we adopt rules to eliminate them."
Depression, mental disorders and suicide are relevant issues for Goodell and the NFL's health and safety arm to address, and Goodell has dedicated more resources to post-career education, therapy and monitoring. The outreach, which includes a crisis support line, and treatment programs were developed shortly after Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide at age 43 in 2012. Seau's family said the charismatic retired star was hurting, desperate and didn't know where to turn.
The NFL is funding independent scientific research and Goodell continues to raise the safety banner, pointing in his letter Thursday to the rule adopted for 2013 that penalizes players for using the crown of the helmet to contact an opponent outside the tackle box. The league added non-affiliated neurotrauma consultants to the sidelines, independent physicians are now involved in "return to practice" decisions and teams are directed to utilize sideline video to help diagnose injuries.
"We will continue to find ways to protect players so they can enjoy longer careers on the field and healthier lives off the field," Goodell said.
The National Institutes of Health tested Seau's brain and learned he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease that can follow multiple hits to the head.
Brain, a medical journal, published a study in December that looked at brain tissue of 34 professional football players after they died. All but one showed evidence of disease.
Oliver's widow, Chelsea, told police: "Paul has been somewhat depressed over being released, and ending his professional football career." Oliver was 29.
"Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who co-chairs our Player Safety Advisory Committee, told me that players and coaches have truly adjusted to the new, safer rules," Goodell said. "Coach Madden said the players are back to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, using the shoulder rather than the head. As a result, the game is safer."
A book that hits newsstands Tuesday "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth" shreds the efforts of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue to minimize, if not cover up, the cause-effect of head injuries. The book alleges with well-researched arguments and data that Tagliabue dismissed concussions as a minor concern and "pack journalism issue."
The names Seau, Jovan Belcher and Dave Duerson send ringing, stinging shockwaves in NFL players. Belcher killed his girlfriend before turning a gun on himself in the parking lot of the team facility in December 2012. His family and former teammates have connected his actions to head trauma, but his brain was not tested for CTE.
Duerson left a note near his body asking his family to test his brain for CTE. Duerson, who shot himself in the chest with a shotgun, was found to have CTE by researchers at Boston University.