The Ultimate Plan for the NFL to Regain the High Ground

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterApril 1, 2016

El comisionado de la NFL, Roger Goodell, sonríe en una conferencia de prensa el miércoles, 23 de marzo de 2016, en Boca Raton, Florida. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

It's been an interesting few years for the NFL. And by interesting, I mean awful. 

There was Deflategate, which spawned a civil war between Iron Man and Captain America, er, Roger Goodell and Robert Kraft. The case, incredibly, is still going. It won't die. Beings infused with the gift of immortality look at Deflategate and say, "I'm jealous."

The league has also recently shown a Trump-ian ability to be tone-deaf. Goodell said you could get hurt sitting on the couch. Jerry Jones went truther on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Jim Irsay compared the dangers of football to aspirin. His daughter said something just as baffling in 2015.

There's another CTE lawsuit. We still don't know exactly what a catch is. There were the Bountygate rulings, where former commissioner Paul Tagliabue threw out Goodell's discipline of players (h/t CBS Sports). There was the incredible misstep with Ray Rice. The NFL has gone after the New York Times over its concussion report, and the newspaper offered a stinging rebuttal. On and on it goes.

When does the tipping point come as a result of all these mistakes? Maybe soon. Maybe never. What's certain is that nothing is immune from the withering effects of a series of serious missteps. Not even professional football.

This isn't a column bashing the NFL. The league does a lot of things right. But when it gets something wrong, holy cow, it goes all the way.

But it can fix things. The NFL can, on a superficial level, and also on a substantive one, repair the damage to its image and its soul.

It can do it in 10 steps...

1. Apologize

At best—and that's being generous—the NFL has mishandled the CTE and concussion issue for decades. Yes, that's like saying Bozo the Clown mishandled his makeup, but, again, I'm being generous.

Goodell needs to hold a press conference and make a grand statement, apologizing for how the NFL has acted on this. Or, since he is radioactive to some, an owner with a great deal of credibility, such as John Mara or Art Rooney, can give the apology. Make it specific. Make it sincere.

John Mara
John MaraJulio Cortez/Associated Press/Associated Press

I know what you're thinking: Won't that be an admission of guilt? Let people interpret it any way they like, and if former players file more lawsuits after the apology, then so be it.

It cannot be stressed enough how much players distrust management on this issue, and as players have gotten more information, mostly on their own, they've walked away from football earlier in greater numbers. ESPN's Hannah Storm reported this week on SportsCenter that the percentage of NFL players retiring at 30 years old or younger has been steadily increasing since 2011. There were 19 of those players in 2015.

There have been three such retirements this offseason, including Calvin Johnson and Husain Abdullah. The latter told Storm that he and other players feel that head trauma information was "kept hidden from us."

That's probably because it was, and it's time now for the NFL to come clean and apologize.

2. Give $100 million to a completely independent neurologist

The NFL has vehemently denied that the money it's given for brain research only goes to doctors who will give the conclusions it wants.

While the NFL has given millions for research, it's not enough. How can the NFL dramatically change its image? Give $100 million for brain research to a totally neutral entity or, even better, a critic. This is the only way to remove all doubt about the league's genuineness in trying to fully understand brain trauma and football.

Plus, for the NFL, $100 million isn't that much cash.

3. Focus less on controlling the message

The NFL, obviously, is within its right to protect itself. But its use of quantum torpedoes against the Times signals a shift in how it is going to handle the media. In nearly three decades of covering the NFL, I can't remember a time the NFL threatened to sue a mainstream news organization.

This is, well, startling. It makes one of the most powerful entities in the country look thin-skinned. What the NFL is truly doing is trying to intimidate the next journalistic entity that does a deep dive into the league's concussion history, making it clear that "We, the billion-dollar bear that's the NFL, will sue your ass into the Stone Age."

This is not a position a great sports league should take. If there's nothing to hide, why the bluster?

(Having said all of that, please don't sue me, NFL.) 

4. Shut the owners up

Jerry Jones
Jerry JonesTim Sharp/Associated Press/Associated Press

Some of them, frankly, don't seem to have a clue about concussions or head trauma. 

(And please don't sue me, NFL.)

5. The league makes cazillions, so stop caring so much about money

This quote from Tagliabue to GQ remains one of the more damning quotes about the NFL ever. He was speaking on how Goodell seems more concerned about making money for the NFL than building relationships with the players.

"If they see you making decisions only in economic terms, they start to understand that and question what you're all about," Tagliabue said. "There's a huge intangible value in peace. There's a huge intangible value in having allies."

Can't say it much better than that.

6. Guarantee all player salaries

Maybe this cuts the NFL's profits from eight cazillion to six cazillion. Or five to four. Or whatever. The lack of fully guaranteed salaries remains one of the NFL's greatest issues. Other than money, there is no reason, none, not a one, to not do it. And (see: Point 5), the league needs to stop making decisions only based on money. It makes plenty.

Guaranteeing salaries would go a long way toward securing players' long-term financial and physical health.

7. Make amends with the union.

Again, see: No. 5.

The key ingredient missing from the relationship between the union and the players is trust. The players feel the NFL doesn't truly care about them as human beings and equal partners. That was Tagliabue's point, and he was right.

8. Have a five-person committee of ex-players and league officials dispense discipline

Take discipline out of Goodell's hands and give the responsibilities to former players and team executives. My panel would be former player Scott Fujita, former team executive Louis Riddick, former team executive Amy Trask, former head coach John Madden and former player Maurice Jones-Drew.

Maurice Jones-Drew
Maurice Jones-DrewDanny Moloshok/Associated Press/Associated Press

They would have their own budget, supplied by the union and league, as well as their own investigatory force. They would have the final say on all discipline matters.

9. When you hire investigators, make them truly independent

If you really want to discover the truth about something like, say, a certain GOAT quarterback who may or may not have deflated footballs, you need to hire truly independent investigators. 

10. Cease seeing the world in absolutist terms

This one is more abstract. What I've noticed in the past perhaps five to 10 years is the NFL taking increasingly hard-line stances on almost everything—particularly when it comes to money and power. This transformation has been palpable and perplexing, since the NFL has plenty of both. I guess it wants it all.

There are so many smart people in the league office—brilliant, actually—but they have a blind spot when it comes to the power and how it should be wielded. The NFL is utilizing the stick more than the carrot, especially now, as evidenced by its threats against the New York Times.

(And please don't sue me, NFL.)

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @mikefreemanNFL.