Sports Nut

Roger Goodell Isn’t a Liar. He’s a Bullshitter.

Towards a theory of pro football public relations.

Roger Goodell.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during a press conference prior to Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 5, 2016 in San Francisco, California.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

On this week’s edition of Slate’s sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” Stefan Fatsis proposed a theory to explain pro football’s public relations operation. An adapted transcript of the audio recording is below, and you can listen to Fatsis’ essay by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph.

Last week, columnists Bruce Arthur in the Toronto Star and Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post beautifully decoded NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s obfuscating, dissembling, misdirecting, double-talking annual Super Bowl news conference. Goodell demonstrated there that he isn’t what Bill Simmons called him in 2014—a liar. Like the asbestos and tobacco and climate change public-relations machines before it, the NFL’s public-relations apparatus is too skillful and too careful for that.

No, Roger Goodell is a bullshitter. In his 2005 book On Bullshit, retired Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt distinguished between lies and bullshit. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit,” Frankfurt wrote.

Goodell’s presser was the essence of bullshit about football and brain injury: Safety rules this, new equipment that. Heads Up this, coaching technique that. You could say that this was predictable bullshit from the chief of a $12 billion corporation trying to cover its ass and forestall its decline. But Goodell has the biggest salary and soapbox in the sport, and the most resources at his disposal. He is the Koch brothers of football bullshit.

Just as adherents of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders parrot their candidate’s bullshit, football has its army of bullshit toadies, too. Youth coaches, because of whom they coach, might be the most dangerous football bullshitters of all.

As part of its Super Bowl coverage, the San Jose Mercury News asked a bunch of local high-school football coaches the following question: “What do you tell parents whose kids want to play football but are concerned about head injuries?” Here are a few of the coaches’ replies:

I tell parents if you allow your child to play football he is no more at risk for getting hurt than if he played any other contact sport. Furthermore according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) statistics show young men between the age of 14-21 suffer the same rate of concussion regardless of what activities they participate in.

Bullshit. A 2009 study of more than 100 high schools found the rate of severe injury was 33 percent higher in football than in the next sport, wrestling. Also, the CDC’s 2015 Report to Congress on Traumatic Brain Injury in the United States does not say that “young men between the age of 14-21 suffer the same rate of concussion regardless of what activities they participate in,” or anything close to that. The report does say that football was one of “the activities associated with the greatest estimated number” of emergency-room visits related to traumatic brain injury. To suggest otherwise is bullshit.

That same coach also asserted:

The No. 1 factor in allowing your son to play football should be his desire to play. If he has the desire to play you should support that desire.

Bullshit. Your son is a minor. You, his parents, should decide what he does.

There are as many concussions in soccer.

Bullshit. A 2007 study found six times as many concussions in high-school football as in boys’ soccer and four times as many as in girls’ soccer.

I let parents know that there is a risk involved but no greater risk than riding your bike or skateboard without a helmet, or playing soccer nowadays without any head protection.

This is among the most insidious football bullshit. The purpose of riding a bike or skateboard is not to collide violently with other bikers or skateboarders. At his news conference, Goodell actually went further. “There’s risks to sitting on the couch,” he bullshat. I’m sure high-school coaches will start repeating that line of bullshit immediately.

I tell them that I can never take the risk of injury out of football, nor do I want to. The risk of injury is what creates the emotional response that you find in young men who play football as opposed to other sports. … If we take football away, young men are going to find this environment elsewhere and this is what scares me.

Oh, bullshit.

The character growth and values learned playing football can come from no other life experience short of military duty.

No other life experience! None! Bullshit.

Football is becoming safer, but it will take time to teach the different techniques to the younger generation so that it follows them through high school and beyond.

Bullshit. No techniques, no matter how well applied, will alter the fundamental nature of a game predicated on high-speed collisions. As former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer told ESPN’s Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, “It’s a violent goddamned game. Your kid is gonna get hurt.”

We teach the rugby tackle and do a power point, explaining all of the steps we take to keep the game safe.

I’m sure the players are mesmerized by the PowerPoint. Bullshit.

One coach didn’t bullshit, at least in these sentences.

I tell them the truth … Football like any sport can include injuries. Most kids that play football will have bumps and bruises every day, and sometimes a player will be injured more than a bump or bruise. Concussions can happen, and the longer a student plays the higher the chance of this happening.

But his voice was a faint whisper in a callithump of bullshit, which reached its crescendo in our final bullshitter, whom I will name. He is Hank Roberts, the coach at Santa Clara High School. What bullshit does he tell parents?

I tell them a few things. I bring up the John Harbaugh letter about football being the last bastion of manhood and how every young man needs to do something that is going to teach them to get back up when they have been physically beaten. That teaches them about the qualities of teamwork.

Coach Roberts was referring to an article published last April on the Baltimore Ravens’ website under the name of the team’s head coach. The article begins, “The game of football is under attack.” It goes on to assert, “Football is a metaphor for life” and “Football has saved lives.” So have lots of other sports. The Harbaugh “letter” was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now.

The coach has more to tell parents:

I also bring up another study about high school football being as dangerous as playing the tuba in the band.

I found the study. It was published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2012. It compared the rates of Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and dementia among boys who played football and boys who were in the band, glee club, or choir (basically, a control group) at two high schools in Rochester, Minnesota, from 1946 to 1956. The study is filled with words and phrases like “limitations,” “data were not available,” “no direct documentation,” and “ideally, we would have.” Using it as a justification for playing football today—or any day, given its focus on three catastrophic diseases and not the cavalcade of other short- and long-term injuries that playing football ensures—is complete and total Frankfurtian bullshit.

Coach Roberts might have read about the study in a dumb post—a dumb post with this especially dumb headline: “Study reveals that playing HS football is just as safe as band, glee club, or choir”—on a coaching website called Football Scoop. Or maybe in a 2014 newspaper column written by a Stanford anesthesiology professor named Ed Riley, whose brother, Mike, is the head coach at college football power Nebraska.

However he stumbled upon it, Coach Roberts now uses this red-herring study of high-school football in 1946 to assure concerned parents that high-school football in 2016 is “as dangerous as” playing a musical instrument. That’s just reprehensible.

I would say that bullshitter Commissioner Roger Goodell should pay bullshitter Coach Hank Roberts and these other bullshitter high-school coaches for their bullshit. But there’s no need. They’re spreading the NFL’s bullshit just fine for free.