Commissioner Goodell on illegal hits: “Even if we have to protect players from themselves, we have to enforce our rules”

Commissioner Roger Goodell discussed in a Thursday morning interview on Boston’s WEEI-Radio the NFL’s plans for stricter enforcement of the existing rules prohibiting hits to the head of defenseless players, as defined by the rules.

Following is a transcript of the Commissioner’s comments:

 (Regarding the NFL’s actions taken after the illegal hits from last weekend)

I don’t think it’s a perfect storm. I think it’s an unfortunate weekend, but I think the work the league has been doing over the last couple of years to bring greater awareness of these types of injuries and these types of hits have made sure everyone is conscious of playing the game within the rules and taking out certain techniques. That’s something we continue to emphasize, these requirements of the rules. We’re going to have to increase the discipline with possible suspensions.

(Regarding the NFL response to the hits)

There is no change of the rules. These rules are changed in the offseason after months of study with competition committee members that include coaches and front office executives and the players and medical personnel. We’ve identified certain techniques that we want to take out of the game. What we’re looking to take out are those hits to the head. We’ve extended protection to defenseless receivers in the offseason. And these were clear violations of those rules, that’s why they were disciplined. What we’re saying to the players very clearly — and information was sent yesterday, including to the media – [is that if] there is a violation of rules we will increase the discipline going forward.

(Will there be ejections going forward?)

I doubt it. It’s likely you’ll see the yellow flag first because we told our officials to air on the side of safety. If they think it’s a violation than they should throw the flag. If they don’t see it, or they miss it, than it won’t matter if there is no flag, we’ll continue the evaluation from a discipline standpoint once the tape gets back to the office on Monday.

(Could textbook, but violent, hits result in discipline under the league’s guidelines?)

It’s not a violation of the rules so why would there be discipline?

(Comparing the hits that drew disciplinary action from last weekend)

They were each violations of the rule. You could certainly distinguish any one of the three, but they are exactly the kind of techniques we have worked on eliminating from the game. Each of them are violations of the rules, they were penalized and disciplined beyond that.

(On the guidelines that are in place)

The defenseless receiver has protections while catching the ball, even while he’s caught the ball. This past offseason we extended it a little bit beyond once they gain possession to give him the chance to become essentially a runner, someone who can defend by moving. As you can see by that play he had no opportunity to defend himself. But we also understand what defenders are trying to do, which is separate the ball. But there are techniques that can be used to separate the ball without the helmet going to the head or neck area.

(On player reaction to the league’s approach)

Each individual is going to have to make their own decision. I can’t influence that. I know that we are going to enforce our rules and make sure the game is played the way we intended. These are not decisions we make on a week to week basis. These are rules that we focus on all offseason, all year-round. I understand certain players may not like the protections. I think we’re doing what’s in the best interest of all the players.

(On the league’s recent approach to disciplining illegal hits)

You can go back over decades, we took the head-slap out, we took the crack-back out. There are plenty of techniques that have been taken out of the game, where everybody has the same reaction initially, which is, ‘Oh, this will change the game.’ Well, if it changes the game for better, or if it changes it better for player safety. I think that’s a healthy thing. I don’t think anybody will tell you that pro football, or football in general, because usually our rule changes go on down through the different levels of football, create a less exciting game. It certainly doesn’t show up on the popularity meter.

(On why the league has taken the action it has)

I don’t think anybody wants to see the kind of hits we saw this weekend, where players on the field are not understanding the level of what the injury is. It’s not something that should be part of our game. Then there are techniques that are really outside the game that have nothing to do with proper tackling. I’ve been focused on this since becoming commissioner. We’ve always made rules and focused on safety. We’ve always made sure players are wearing the best equipment. We’ve always tried to make sure players are getting the best treatment. And we believe our players are getting the best medical treatment. We want to do everything we can from preventing this from happening. It’s something that I believe deep in my heart, that we have to do the best possible job of doing, protecting the player and making sure that even if we have to protect them from themselves we have to enforce those rules.

(On the league becoming more public with their approach toward dealing with illegal hits)

I said last night that we’ve had a change in culture, and I’ve said that for quite a while, because it starts with the awareness factor. Everybody is aware that certain techniques can lead to injuries. Most specific is the focus of head injuries and the fact we have to use proper techniques to try and avoid them. We have to do everything we can to minimize them. When they do happen, we have to treat them properly. I understand when you hear some of the player reaction. I’ve heard it before, I’ve heard it from fans. But we’re going to make the game safe, and it will continue to make the game exciting.

(On league’s approach toward potentially going to an 18-game schedule)

We’ve been focused on the idea of how we improve the quality of our season over the past several years, and that includes the quality of our preseason. Remember we’re still in a 20-game format. What we’re talking about is changing two preseason games to two regular season games. We’re talking about what we can do in the offseason to try and modify what is happening in the offseason so that it’s safer for the players during the offseason, and we’re taking less impact in the offseason. All of that is to make sure the game stays stronger, healthier, safer for our players.

(On how pro-active the league has been in regards to player safety)

I don’t think the NFL has gotten enough credit in the sense of what it did prior it did prior to me becoming commissioner with dealing with concussions. We started a committee that was focused on concussion prevention back in the mid-90’s. The NFL as a league has been focused on this issue. The last few years we have taken steps that have raised awareness and have made significant contributions, and not just to football. One of the things that has to be recognized, and maybe wasn’t emphasized enough last night, this effects all contact sports. In fact the highest incidents of concussions in youth sports are with girls soccer. This affects all sports, and in fact goes beyond sports. As we mentioned last night, we are working hand-in-hand with the Department of Defense because it’s one of the biggest issues our men and women in the military are facing, is the concussions they receive. And, in fact, they have looked our return to play guidelines and modeled them to create return to battlefield guidelines.

(Will fans see any changes on the field this weekend?)

I don’t think the fans will see anything (different). I certainly hope we don’t see people laid out on the field. It will be continue to be a hard-hitting game. But hopefully those techniques that I cited, and we cited in the rules, will be eliminated from the game.

(Has players approach toward tackling changed?)

It’s one of the comments I get so much from former players, is that tackling has changed. They’re not using the same fundamentals. John Madden and I talk about hits, and John has the theory that the helmet is the best protection on the player as they are using less and less padding. It’s one of the things we continue to propose to our players association, that we should require the players to wear all that padding. Proper shoulder pads, rib pads, hip pads, thigh pads, knee pads. If you look at most players today they’re not wearing a lot of those pads. We need to go back to making sure they’re wearing a lot of those pads so that they’re full protected.

(On the ongoing investigation of the case regarding Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger)

We’re going to collect all the data we can. When we’ve got all the information, all the facts, we’ll make a determination at that time.

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