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Football's great character test

2/3/2013 - NFL

NEW ORLEANS -- Once you get past all the declarations by league commissioner Roger Goodell, the recent posturing by the NFL Players Association and the fears that have driven even President Obama to chime in with his own opinions, we should remember something important: Football will be fine. It's going through a difficult time. It's facing major challenges likes it's never seen before. But it's not going anywhere. The game will only grow stronger.

It's hard to think about this possibility in the wake of Goodell's annual news conference at the Super Bowl. The first question he faced was one that addressed Obama's recent comments about not wanting his own children to play football if he had boys. There were also inquiries about HGH testing (which Goodell believes will happen soon), the NFLPA's desire to amend the current collective bargaining agreement to address safety issues and any regrets Goodell might have about his handling of the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. The entire tenor of the event suggested a league in upheaval. If you listened long enough, you got the sense that, as Ravens safety Bernard Pollard suggested earlier this week, that the NFL really might be extinct in three decades.

The reality is that it won't. The truth is that football means more to us than any other sport, and that's not going to change because of today's current issues.

As Goodell said, "I started playing [football] in the fourth grade in Washington D.C., and I wouldn't give back one day. I think about the benefits -- [the game] teaching you character, how to get up when you've been knocked down, teamwork -- those are lessons that I value today."

Those also are lessons that won't disappear as football goes through its own makeover. It's almost laughable to hear people talk about how dangerous the game is today because it sounds as if they've been watching something completely different for the past few decades. Football has always been an extremely violent sport. The fact that we now know more about the devastating impact of concussions doesn't mean it's any lesser of a game today.

It also shouldn't give people a reason to sell their kids on the notion that it's not a sport worth playing. It's easy to say that when you live in the White House or you've benefited from a nice, upper-middle class lifestyle. It's a different story for those kids who grow up in inner-city projects or have few options of ever improving their own lives. Ask those families what football can do for them. Their parents won't be so quick to condemn a sport that could open doors that would ultimately be closed to them later in life.

The game will grow stronger because people from those backgrounds will be more than happy to play while more well-off kids run off to soccer or golf. The money the NFL generates -- more than $9 billion annually -- also will keep drawing people to the game. As along as multi-million dollar contracts and college scholarships are potential rewards for excelling in the sport, there will be a thirst for it. Even San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh joked that he'd be happy to see fewer people in the game if it meant more opportunities for his own young son to advance in the sport.

This isn't all about money, by the way. It's about why football generates boatloads of cash in the first place. As much as we crave the violence, we also love the by-products of it. We see men sacrificing their bodies, fighting for a common goal and pushing themselves past limits that would overwhelm many people sitting in the stands. That stuff has value. It inspires and excites, motivates and captivates.

Most of those rewards have been lost in what has become an endless battle over the soul of the game. The players rightly are upset about the heavy-handed tactics that Goodell's office has used to tame the sport. They're being asked to change the culture of a game that is inherently brutal and they're not getting any breaks for their mistakes. If this were boxing, it would be like asking fighters to throw softer punches. There's literally no way for that change to happen as quickly as the NFL hopes it does in its game.

But change has to come. There is too much finger pointing, too many lawyers maneuvering to score major dollars for disgruntled retirees and too many sad, suicidal stories like those of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. The game must become tamer because too many current players don't think they'll end up like those battered men after football. In many ways, they do need to be saved from their own well-conditioned impulses.

The real challenge for Goodell is making sure the heart of the game isn't surrendered in the midst of all these changes. That's the key to the entire sport's future. We don't need to see players carted off every Sunday for football to touch our souls. We just need to know the men involved in the game are still playing as hard they ever did.

The commissioner knows that. When he talks about continuing to punish players who cross the line with vicious hits -- "We are going to have to see discipline continue to escalate, particularly on repeat offenders," he said Friday -- those are the comments that will rankle the current rank-and-file. They will view it as one more example of Goodell being out of touch, of suits sitting in midtown New York City offices forgetting what made the game great in the first place. They will see it as one more nail in the coffin of football.

What those same people won't understand is that Goodell can make such moves because football is as stable as it's ever been. It's beloved for reasons that go beyond violence, and its staying power has more to do with dynamics we often don't see. As Goodell said, the values he learned from the sport have stuck with him all the way to this point in his life. As the football evolves, those same lessons will be just valuable to the people who will play this game going forward.