NEW ORLEANS -- You don't need Roger Goodell to tell you the highly scrutinized, highly criticized NFL is doing just fine. You will see that for yourself Sunday night when you turn on Super Bowl XLVII and watch the Baltimore Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers. You will see it in the fabulous new commercials. Did you know those 30-second spots are going for $3.8 million? 49ers All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman had a pretty good idea.
"The NFL is a big-money business," he said. "I don't think it's going to go away."
Goodell, the league's highly scrutinized, highly criticized commissioner, said much the same thing Friday when he delivered his State of the NFL address. "This Sunday will be the conclusion of an incredible season of NFL football," he began. What? You expected Goodell to say the concussion issue is going to ruin the game? That he's worried about complaints from players about the discipline his office hands down? That the screams from some fans that the league is becoming sissified are legitimate?
What Goodell said that was newsworthy was that he doesn't really give a damn if the players don't like him. As many as 80 percent -- depending on the survey -- give him a negative approval rating because of his handling of league discipline on player-safety issues. Goodell's response? Tough. He promised to keep fining and suspending those players who refuse to "take the head out of the game. ... Suspensions get through to them. We're going to continue to emphasize the importance of following the rules. When there are violations, we will escalate the discipline."
Good for Goodell.
The heck with the players in this case.
No one is disputing that the players are the show. There would be no NFL without them. It wouldn't be the most successful and powerful league in the world.
But too many of the 49ers and Ravens spent too much time this week moaning because Goodell is trying to make the NFL safer. You would think they would applaud. Ah, no. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard made the biggest headlines when he predicted the NFL won't exist in 30 years. He did so, not coincidentally, just a few days after he was fined $15,250 by the league office for a hit on New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker in the AFC championship.
"I think with the direction things are going ... there's going to come to a point where fans are going to get fed up with it," Pollard said. "It's going to be a thing where fans aren't going to want to watch it anymore."
For one thing, the NFL game is hardly on its way toward becoming flag football. It's still brutal despite the increased emphasis on player safety. "It's a car accident every play," Pollard acknowledged, even those plays that don't have helmet-to-helmet hits.
For another thing, fans still can't get enough of the NFL. The ratings for the game Sunday night will be astronomical. That's why CBS can charge $3.8 million for 30 seconds of its precious air time.
For a third thing, the players often need to be protected from themselves. Most will tell you they are aware of the risks when they sign up to play pro ball. Many are paid extraordinary salaries. But that doesn't mean they have to be mentally incapacitated before they're 50 or, even worse, dead.
Slowly, but surely, Goodell is changing the culture of the NFL. In the not-so-distant past, players would ignore concussion symptoms and keep playing. Hines Ward said he often did that. So did James Harrison. But you're seeing less of that now. Education about brain injuries is getting through to the players. The suicide of future Hall of Famer Junior Seau last year was a hard slap of reality for many. Seau had brain disease, reportedly from repeated hits to his head from football, at the time of his death.
One of the big stories during this Super Bowl week involved 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. He was starting and playing great football when he was concussed in a game Nov. 11 against the St. Louis Rams. He missed one game and lost his job to Colin Kaepernick, who led the team here.
It remains to be seen if some players will go back to hiding their concussions after seeing what happened to Smith. It's nice to think they'll pay attention to what Smith said about having no regrets. "We're all going to be done with this game at some point and we've got a lot of life ahead of us. There are no brain transplants that I've ever heard of."
Goodell's methods are working.
No, he's not perfect. You think he's slightly less than altruistic about player safety and just as interested in protecting the NFL from more lawsuits over head injuries? You're right. You think he's hypocritical to talk so much about player safety yet continue to push for an 18-game regular season? You're right. You think he mishandled Spygate with the Patriots and Bountygate with the New Orleans Saints. You're right. You think he looked foolish giving a love embrace to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis before a playoff game a few weeks ago? You're really right, that was nauseating.
But Goodell is dead on with his tough stance about player discipline for dangerous hits.
The heck with what the players say.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published February 2, 2013 5:00 AM