BOSTON -- Professional football can evolve into a safer game without sacrificing 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 four days after three starting NFL quarterbacks were knocked out with concussions, Goodell said that the league has already improved the way it handles 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. 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 who noted that Smith and Cutler kept playing for a short time after being injured.
"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."
Football has never been so popular -- and its popularity is still rising, Goodell said. The 16 most-watched TV shows this fall -- other than the presidential debates -- were NFL games; the second-most popular sport to professional football is college football, Goodell said, quoting President Barack Obama as saying, "You don't go anyplace where folks don't talk about football."
But the sport's popularity has also been jeopardized by an onslaught of reports linking it to the brain damage that can lead to memory loss, depression and suicide among retired players.
"We are well aware of social commentators who now question our future. And I am here to tell you: If we are at another crossroads, we have already taken the right path," Goodell said. "We took it a long time ago, and our commitment to stay on it will not waver."
Calling it the sport's biggest challenge, Goodell said his goal is to change the sport's culture -- a culture in which players and coaches are discouraged from hiding injuries to keep players on the field. The problem is not unique to football, he said, noting that athletes in other sports are hesitant to leave when others are still competing or, in the case of the military, in danger.
"The culture of the athlete is still too much of a play-through-it, rather than player safety mentality. Many players have publicly admitted to hiding concussions and other head injuries," he said, telling the story of a family friend with a 15-year-old daughter who hid a concussion because she didn't want to come out of a field hockey game.