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November 16, 2012

NFL commissioner says sport will evolve, get safer

BOSTON — Professional football can evolve into a safer game without sacrificing the physical play — or, some would say, violence — that has made it so popular, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a speech on player safety at the Harvard School of Public Health on Thursday.

“Football has always evolved, and it always will,” he told an overflow crowd of a few hundred. “Make no mistake: change does not inhibit the game; it improves it.”

In a long-planned appearance that came four days after three starting NFL quarterbacks were knocked out with concussions, Goodell said that the league has already improved the way it handles hits to the head.

San Francisco’s Alex Smith, Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Philadelphia’s Michael Vick were all diagnosed with concussions in Sunday’s games. Goodell said that all three were taken out “as soon as they showed symptoms,” a claim that was challenged by a member of the audience during the period for questions who noted that Smith and Cutler kept playing for a short time after being injured.

“It was identified and they were taken out of the game,” the commissioner said. “Even a few years ago, I’m not sure you would have seen that.”

Listing some of the safety measures that have been incorporated into the sport both before and since he became commissioner, Goodell mentioned the elimination of the flying wedge that was first employed by Harvard in the 1800s and the change in kickoffs last season that he credited for a 40 percent reduction in concussions on returns. He said the league is looking into better helmets and sponsoring scientific research that could make the game still safer.

“Not long ago, the game allowed the head slap, tackling by the face mask, horse-collar tackles, dangerous blocks, and hits to the head of defenseless receivers and quarterbacks. All of that has changed,” he said.

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