Roger Goodell's ongoing tour of town hall meetings with select NFL season-ticket holders isn't designed to address the big questions facing the league, and the commissioner's stop at MetLife Stadium last week was no different.
His hour-long discussion with Giants fans ran the gamut from decade-old Super Bowl memories to days-old Hall of Fame reactions, with only one audience member even bringing up the injury anvil that continues to hang over the league's players.
The hardest football conversation this side of Colin Kaepernick (who wasn't even brought up in the Q&A) is the one most likely to affect the highest percentage of NFL employees past and present, yet it remains one of the most difficult to talk about, at least for those currently in the game.
It's the one Eli Manning admitted he rarely allows himself even to think about, the one his New England counterpart Tom Brady said just the other day is no one's business but his own. And when Giants veteran running back Shane Vereen said Monday that Brady's feelings are "absolutely" shared by many NFL players, the hush-hush veil of secrecy around the game's scariest injury begins to make sense.
The moment these players stop and reflect on the permanent damage they could be doing to themselves is the very moment they put themselves most at risk.
"I don't think much about it, for myself," Manning said. "Around the locker room, I haven't heard any players talking about that situation a whole lot. Obviously, you worry about the players and former players that are going through that and their families and the difficulties of what former players are going through, you feel for them. But, from the standpoint, I think a lot of players don't want to think about injuries, don't want to think about down the road too much. Some are, and you see some guys retiring, but I haven't heard a whole lot of talk about it. I've been fortunate and haven't had any head injuries."
In a perfect world, it might be useful for the greats like Manning and Brady to take to their podiums and call for openness about concussions, to give much-needed perspective and weight to a problem that absolutely plagues the violent, physical (yet still compelling) game that football is, to stand up and lead the way for young players to be unafraid to acknowledge head injuries as they happen.
Maybe their words would resonate most loudly with young players such as Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams, who lit up a different town hall event when he told fans the football field is "the perfect place to die." Adams would later explain his remarks as reflective only of his passion for the game and not an insensitivity to those dealing with the degenerative brain disease so often linked to football, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and admitted his shock at how many headlines his comments spawned.
Such is the state of this delicate discussion, one Goodell sidestepped Monday. When a ticket holder who introduced himself as Mitch from Wayne wanted to know where Goodell sees the league in 20 years, he was citing his ongoing concern about concussions. But he also phrased the question to include his opinion that the game's overall quality of play has deteriorated across recent years, and it was that part of the discussion Goodell latched onto (and predictably disagreed with), not wanting to court controversy as he also did at a town hall event, when he trotted an old line of defense about football-player life expectancy being longer than a non-player's.
"I guess I would take issue with 'the quality of the game isn't what it used to be, '" Goodell said. "I think it's better than it's ever been. I think we've proven you can make the game better and more competitive and safer at the same time. ... I think we've done a good job of embracing the changes to the game and advancing equipment to make our game safer, and bringing awareness to head injuries, for example, is helping all sports, not just football, but all sports."
Giant's co-owner John Mara, a long-standing member of the competition committee that deals directly with the rules changes to which Goodell referred, ones like reducing the number of kickoffs and banning players from vaulting over a line to tackle, said, "We watch hundreds of hours a tape each year, and looking at 2001 and 2002 compared to now, particularly with defensive backs and linebackers, players use their heads a lot less now than they did back then. They're just more educated. I think we've been at least partially successful in changing the mindset for player safety. Concussion protocols are in place. That's our No. 1 goal each year in the competition committee, what can we do to improve player safety."
Obviously, the discussion is ongoing. Compelling stories have been told over and over again, hard to listen to ones that have ended in tragedy, courageous ones that have seen players walk away before reaching that point, sobering ones like the daily battles former players still battle.
Voices like Harry Carson and Wayne Chrebet remind us we need to keep talking, but answers from Manning and Brady remind us it's not always easy to do. To begin contemplating your football mortality is akin to dulling your edge, and for players in the game now, that's a risk many are not ready to take.