CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It wouldn't do the issue of concussions in the NFL justice to call it the elephant in the room. It is big and pink and, at this point, almost all anyone talks about when the league is mentioned in the larger context of society. Roger Goodell, the keynote speaker at the annual Carl Blyth Lecture for UNC Chapel Hill's Department of Exercise and Sports Science, acknowledges the issue, welcomes the conversation and believes the NFL's biggest challenge is "changing the culture."
Not acknowledging the conversation would be ignorant and naive. Goodell isn't interested in being either and said on Wednesday the league absolutely welcomes the "national conversation" surrounding football.
"There is a national conversation taking place about football," Goodell said. "We welcome it."
Goodell answered a slew of tough questions from students and media alike (and good on you, Will McAdoo, for coming strong with the 18-game schedule question), covering topics like his alleged fear of a player dying on the field, Thursday night injury rates and NFL players trusting team doctors.
But his primary message was clear: the league has to change the culture surrounding injuries if it wants to continue thriving.
"The risk of injury in football is well known. But throughout history, football's evolved and become safer and better. In recent years, there's become a sharper focus on concussions in football," Goodell said. "Scientists and doctors know more about concussions than they did even a few years ago. This is our biggest challenge: changing the culture to reduce injury risk, especially the risk of head injury."
It's easier to say that than actually have it happen, and there are myriad reasons to be cynical of the NFL's approach to player safety. But give credit to Goodell for finding a message that works and sticking with it; he repeatedly used the phrase "Take your head out of the game."
"We will find ways to take the head out of the game," Goodell said. "The helmet is for protection; it should not be used as a weapon."
Credit due to a clever line that's not just a reference to removing helmet-to-helmet (or knee-to-helmet) hits, but a reverse of the old idiom about keeping your head in the game.
And it's also important to praise the league for the money that it's spending in the private arena to try to improve the technology involved in maintaining -- and increasing -- the level of player safety in the NFL.
"On concussions ... we are forming a unique partnership with GE and other partners such as U.S. Army," Goodell said. "The initial funding from the NFL and GE is $60 million over three years. We are going outside the traditional research approach ... to speed up progress. This is a very important development."
Goodell pointed out that the league "can't do it alone." They can't; researchers at places like Chapel Hill and GE are critical to the improvement of technology. (It was surprising to hear Goodell say, though, that other professional sports don't seem interested in working with the NFL.)
The improvements -- Goodell cited sideline diagnostics, certified athletic trainers, iPad usage by personnel and improved video as just a few the league is implementing -- need to continue evolving along with the game.
Because it's a game, ultimately. A very popular one, yes, but a game. And no matter how popular it is and no matter how many billions it brings in, it's not immune to the perils of society recognizing a culture problem inside the sport.
Give Goodell credit for recognizing that and trying to push the message.
"We need a culture of safety for every sport," Goodell said. "So all of us who love sports can say with confidence about the future, 'The best is yet to come.'"