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Super Bowl week highlights NFL's health crisis

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OTL: NFL and concussion research (3:42)

OTL discusses the report on a secretive NFL funding apparatus that often rewards league doctors, punishes critics and, some researchers believe, steers research away from uncomfortable truths about the relationship between football and brain disease. (3:42)

SAN FRANCISCO -- The morning after Roger Goodell stood below the winners' Super Bowl stage, hugging members of Peyton Manning's family as the confetti swirled around him, the commissioner stepped to a microphone and proudly declared his belief that the weeklong event in the Bay Area had been a smash hit.

Better yet, Goodell added, football fans everywhere seemed to agree with him. "We've had initial reactions on the ratings," he said of the Denver Broncos' victory over the Carolina Panthers, "and they are competitive, at least, if not the most-watched television show in history. It will be very close. When we add in the digital platforms that we are now working so closely with, I clearly believe this will be the most-watched Super Bowl in history."

If this was Goodell's idea of an end zone dance in place of the one Cam Newton didn't get to perform, well, the commissioner made his point. You could almost hear a little voice in the back of his head saying something along these lines:

You can mock me in your tweets and shred me in your commentaries, and paint my league as a heartless place where healthy brains go to die, and none of it will matter. People still crave my product, and that's never going to change.

And you know what? Maybe it never will change in this lifetime, or in the next one, or in the one after that. Maybe there always will be enough men, women and children hopelessly devoted to the RedZone channel to sustain the National Football League as America's pastime.

But that's not the smart way to bet. If anything, beyond Manning's almost certain farewell, the week that was in the NFL will be remembered as the time it became clear this game needs a surgeon general's warning attached to it.

Where to begin? In the wake of news that reported concussions suffered in regular-season games rose 58 percent from 2014, ESPN's Outside the Lines and The New York Times reported that a Boston University doctor found CTE in the brain of the late, great Kenny Stabler. Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson told ESPN.com that he won't let his grandson play football, that head trauma nearly compelled him to commit suicide in his playing days, that he'd never play football if he had to do it all over again, and that the NFL wants him to "shut the f--- up" about concussions.

The son of legendary Dick "Night Train" Lane told ESPN.com he believed that his father suffered from CTE-related disorders before his 2002 death, that the league "screwed us over" when Lane sought financial assistance and that the NFL is "putting a Band-Aid over a gaping wound" when it comes to caring for its neurologically altered retirees. The great Joe Montana described himself as a physical wreck in USA TODAY. The family of Earl Morrall told The New York Times that the former quarterback was found to have had Stage 4 CTE after his 2014 death.

Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, showed up uninvited at the Super Bowl health and safety media conference last week and likened the NFL's support of tackle football at the youth level to "big tobacco teaching kids how to smoke." The following day, Goodell was nearing the end of his annual state-of-the-league media conference when asked if the deaths of seven high school players last season from game or practice injuries had made him uncomfortable marketing tackle football to kids.

Goodell spoke of the emphasis on proper technique promoted by USA Football and the Heads Up Football program, and of NFL rule changes designed to enhance player safety, when he suddenly ran himself into a problem, a big one. "There's risks in life," the commissioner said. "There's risks in sitting on the couch."

Instead of explaining there are risks associated with many activities, and that parents and children need to weigh those risks against the rewards of engaging in many activities, and that the NFL will remain 100 percent committed to reducing football risks to kids for as long as it's in business, Goodell said what he said.

Among his weaknesses, Goodell is not an artful public speaker. He comes across as robotic and rehearsed, and all the coaching his publicists do to prepare him for press conferences can't control the outcome. He committed an unforced error, because that's what poor public speakers do, and of course he got hammered for it.

"I am #blessed to survive a night on the couch," one of his very own players, Chris Long of the Los Angeles Rams, tweeted after watching the Super Bowl. "But I knew the risks."

On the same day Goodell made his mess, New York Giants owner John Mara, one of the league's most respected guardians, took on Nowinski and yet spoke passionately and humanely about the concussion crisis, swearing he cares deeply for the safety of the young men who have worked in the Mara family business since 1925. Had Mara been commissioner, he never would've said what Goodell said about that damn couch.

But in the end, maybe it's a good thing the commissioner unwittingly breathed new and necessary life into the question of what football does to a man's (or boy's) brain and body. At 39, Manning already knows he'll someday need a hip replacement surgery, and possibly more neck surgeries. If you needed reminders of how violent the game can be, Luke Kuechly gave it to you with that hit on Demaryius Thomas, and Thomas Davis gave it to you with that Instagram photo of the surgical scar on his broken arm that looked like the laces on a football, only longer and far more grotesque.

Chris Borland isn't the only young NFL player to walk away from this, and there will be plenty more. On the day Borland retired, Wesley Walker, a former Pro Bowl receiver for the New York Jets, told ESPN.com he admired the 49ers linebacker for making a decision he'd never made despite living a life of constant pain from the countless football-related injuries and surgeries that left him praying for relief in the dead of night.

"If I had to do it all over again," Walker said that day, "and I knew I'd end up in the amount of pain I'm always in, there's no way in hell I'd play football again. ... I could never see myself hurting myself, but there have been times when I've thought, 'God, I wish you'd just end this right now.'

"Roger Goodell is a good friend of mine. But I want the NFL to tell the truth about what's happening with players, and I think they sugarcoat everything."

The time for sugarcoating is finally over in this $12 billion-and-counting industry. Between today and opening night in September, Goodell should spend every waking minute on this issue, and not on what defines a catch. He should first admit to the league's past mistakes in denying a link between football and brain disease, and then pledge to commit every available penny of research funding to truly independent doctors and scientists, not to those league-friendly types inclined to give the home team a favorable call or three.

Goodell then should support a nationwide mandate to ban tackle football through eighth grade and support a call for high schools to limit freshman participation to practice-only contact supervised by coaches trained to teach the safest blocking and tackling techniques. Why not be the first NFL commissioner to actively campaign for the reduction of hundreds of hits to the average developing player's head?

Would such a dramatic position save an already tattered Goodell legacy, especially when some owners might prefer he merely pay lip service to the cause of player safety, take the public hits they don't have to take, and just keep those revenues and ratings soaring? It would be a risk for sure.

Then again, there are always risks to take in life. On the couch, or behind a commissioner's desk.