BOSTON - Professional football can evolve into a safer game without losing the physical play - or, some would say, violence - that has made it so popular, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a speech on player safety at the Harvard School of Public Health on Thursday.
"Football has always evolved, and it always will," he told an overflow crowd of a few hundred. "Make no mistake: change does not inhibit the game; it improves it."
In a long-planned appearance that came a few days after three starting quarterbacks were knocked out with concussions, Goodell said that the NFL has already improved the way it has handled hits to the head. San Francisco's Alex Smith, Chicago's Jay Cutler and Philadelphia's Michael Vick were all diagnosed with concussions in Sunday's games, but Smith and Cutler kept playing for a short time after being injured.
Goodell said that all three were taken out "as soon as they showed symptoms," a claim that was challenged by a member of the audience during the period for questions.
"It was identified and they were taken out of the game," the commissioner said. "Even a few years ago, I'm not sure you would have seen that."
Listing some of the safety measures that have been incorporated into the sport both before and since he became commissioner, Goodell mentioned the elimination of the flying wedge that was first employed by Harvard in the 1800s and the change in kickoffs last season that he credited for a 40 percent reduction in concussions on returns. He said the league is looking into better helmets and sponsoring scientific research that could make the game still safer.
"Not long ago, the game allowed the head slap, tackling by the face mask, horse-collar tackles, dangerous blocks, and hits to the head of defenseless receivers and quarterbacks. All of that has changed," he said. "My commitment has been and will continue to be to change the culture of football to better protect players without changing the essence of what makes the game so popular. It has been done. And it will be done."
But the changes are coming too late for thousands of former players who are suing the NFL, claiming it withheld information on the damage concussions can do to their long-term health. Research has shown that repeated hits to the head, even those that do not cause concussions, can cause brain damage that leads to memory loss and depression and has been blamed for the suicides of several former players.
Goodell stressed that there is risk of injury in all sports.