NFL Commish on Campus as Spring Football Opens

By Turner Walston | 0 Comment(s) | Posted

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gave the Carl S. Blyth Lecture at George Watts Hill Alumni Center on Wednesday. Goodell spoke on the efforts he and the NFL are making to make the game of football safer. In recent years, the safety of the sport of football has dominated headlines, and concussions in particular have been a focus of much discussion. Wednesday, Goodell spoke on both the safety of football and the sport's future.

"Because of his leadership, we will have a safer game of football at every level," Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz said in introducing Goodell. Guskiewicz is the chair of the UNC Department of Exercise and Sport Science and a leading research professor in sport-related concussions.

Goodell opened by invoking the names of Tar Heel football legends such as Lawrence Taylor, Chris Hanburger, Jeff Saturday, Julius Peppers and Hakeem Nicks. The commissioner said that the NFL is in a position to lead on the forefront of medical research and sport safety. "As stewards of the game, it is our responsibility to promote a culture of safety; to be leaders," he said. "We will not sit and wait for others to provide answers. We will continue to make rule changes, invest in innovative protective equipment and provide our medical staffs with the tools and authority to protect the players on the field. The rule in our league is very simple: medical decisions override everything else."

Following the lecture, Goodell spent 30 minutes answering questions from UNC students and lecture attendees. He said the league had the "unilateral right" to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games (reducing by two the number of preseason contests), and that those discussions were ongoing, and that there was no evidence that players that played on Sunday and then the following Thursday were at a higher risk for injury.

Hours after Goodell's lecture, Carolina began spring practice on a chilly windy day at Navy Fields. The Tar Heels began their second spring under head coach Larry Fedora, who had a chance to meet with the NFL commissioner. "I would say [he's a] very impressive person," Fedora said. "I would say he's got a tremendous head on his shoulders, and just listening to him you can tell he's just a natural leader."

Fedora said the football program benefits from having Guskiewicz and his team on campus at the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center (as featured in Tar Heel Monthly, July 2012). "Definitely," he said. "In fact I met with Kevin a couple of weeks ago and just about some of the data, some of his suggestions and some of the things that we can do to make it safer, and I feel very fortunate Kevin's here because there's no doubt in my mind we're the leaders in this thing. We're way out ahead of a lot of people on it, the things that we're doing to keep our players safe."

Rising Tar Heel seniors Kareem Martin and James Hurst also got to meet Goodell. "It was a great experience, being able to meet somebody of such high status, like Roger Goodell," Martin said. "Just hearing his insight on football and where it's going and how the game is evolving and the different rules they're trying to implement, it was pretty great." Martin said he relies on rules and equipment to keep him safe during the course of play, and that overthinking safety would be detrimental. "You can't think about that, because as soon as you start thinking about that, playing not to get hurt, that's when you get hurt. You've just got to play full-speed and pray that you don't get injured. Injuries are the nature of the game. Nobody expects to get injured but it happens. You can't go out there expecting to get injured, or you will, because you'll be playing timid."

As an offensive tackle, Hurst is on the front lines - literally - of the safety issue. He experiences those repeated hits at the line of scrimmage that Guskiewicz has said could lead to impairment. "A big thing for us and for me is being able to report guys (who may be experiencing concussion-like symptoms). Obviously it's tough to take yourself out of a play. As stupid as that may sound to some people, it's football, some people see this as our jobs so you want to stay in. You want to keep playing, but if a guy next to me gets dinged, I've got to look out for him, he's got to look out for me and be able to tell somebody and get him out. It's dangerous, but it's part of it. We obviously learn proper technique in order to solve that, but it's a problem and I don't think there's going to be a ton that anyone can do to really solve it."

As for the football practice, Fedora said the team was well ahead of where it was on day one of spring practice a year ago. "We wanted to come out here and get everything we possibly could out of the day, and I thought the guys did that. I thought they moved around well, the energy was great, (and) our tempo was good throughout the entire practice."

Fedora said that after having played a season in the spread offensive system, quarterback Bryn Renner had come a long way. "Bryn really started catching fire about the last five games of the season, when he really started getting a feel and I would say the way he came back today, he picked up right where he left off."

Carolina played at a much faster tempo in 2012 than in previous years, and Renner said the objective is to crank it up even more. "Our goal is to run 80 plays in a game. Coach (Blake) Anderson's been preaching that, and in order to do that, we're going to play really fast and understand the system, so I think if we can just get a better understanding of the system then we're going to be in good shape."

The Tar Heels will practice Friday, then take a week off for spring break before resuming a schedule of three practices per week. Carolina will practice twice off-campus, on Thursday March 28 at Charlotte's Mallard Creek High School, and on Friday April 5 at Grimsley High School in Greensboro. Those sessions are open to the public.

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