Roger Goodell

By Eric Clark

NFL players’ wives and girlfriends are safer today than they were a year ago, Commissioner Roger Goodell said on the eve of the 2015 Draft.

Appearing at a forum moderated by Medill alumna Christine Brennan in the McCormick Foundation Center Forum in Evanston Wednesday, Goodell said the league has made strides in addressing the domestic violence issues that have rocked the league.

Follow Medill reporters' coverage of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Follow Medill reporters’ coverage of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Most significantly, he said, the NFL has tried to educate players and other personnel on ways to educate NFL personnel about ways to recognize and thwart these episodes.

“Every player, every coach, every executive, the owners — there isn’t a single person that didn’t go through [domestic violence awareness training],” Goodell said, noting that all 27 prospects who came to Chicago for the 2015 draft had training in how to prevent domestic violence .“We are trying to get to the point where we get that early and help individuals and their families deal with these issues so that they can have a normal relationship, a relationship that’s powerful.

“That’s what everybody wants.”

Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd of about 170 people — including members of Northwestern University’s faculty, administration, student body and invited guests — Goodell took questions, mostly from students and Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist.

Peppered by inquiries on volatile issues such as concussions and the league’s policy, Washington’s team name, as well as domestic violence, Goodell deflected many of the more controversial queries and kept the conversation focused on  the NFL’s growth as an organization.

He said he expects the league to approve the return of a team in Los Angeles before one goes to London, but anticipates both. He said the league is considering raising the number of games played in London, now up to three per year, to four or five.

He trumpeted the league’s first “over-the-top” broadcast, an upcoming Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game that will be available only on the Internet, except in the two teams’ markets, where it will air on broadcast television. Goodell said the experiment is part of the league’s effort to reach millennials, a generation that is less-inclined than their elders to view traditional television.

Goodell said he thinks the NFL is at the forefront of the effort to minimize domestic violence in society.

“They’re very emotional issues. They’re also very difficult for the criminal justice system to be able to deal with effectively,” he said. “They’re difficult for organizations like ourselves to deal with, but I think we are plowing new ground. I think we’re doing things that other organizations aren’t doing, and I think hopefully that’s going to help all of us.”

As numerous players with previous encounters with the law or “character issues” are projected to go on the first day of the NFL Draft on Thursday, Goodell said the league is committed to helping all players become positive role models in the NFL and for society at large.

“I’m always worried about any group of players that come in,” Goodell said in response to a student who asked whether he was concerned that players with a history of bad behavior would tarnish the league. “You now represent not just yourself, not just your family, but the NFL, the team that you’re going to be drafted by, and the community.”

Goodell said these issues are not limited to just NFL players, adding that character flaws could be found among the audience in Wednesday’s forum, as well. But he acknowledged that fans don’t just expect players to excel on the football field, but to be held to higher standards off the field and are expected to be powerful figures within their communities.

“Not all of them are going to make that mark,” he said. “But they’re going to be held accountable for it when they don’t. And when they don’t, there will be consequences for it.”

The NFL holds itself to a very high standard regarding responsibility, Goodell said. And when it doesn’t live up to those standards, Goodell said, he and others are willing to own up to their mistakes and correct them.

“Our focus is pretty simple,” he said. “How do we make the game better for our fans, how do we make it safer for our players and our future players and our former players, and how do we continue to keep a very strong position of social responsibility? Do the right thing. It’s that simple.”

Students and Brennan also questioned the league’s commitment to making the game safer, particularly with regard to concussions. Goodell said the league is making strides in this area – with rules and equipment changes, investments in research and medical care – and said concussions in the NFL were down 25 percent last year. But he acknowledged, “I don’t think you can ever do enough.”

And he pushed back at suggestions that interest in playing football at the Pop Warner and high school level has waned because of parent concern about concussions, saying high school football numbers are up for the first time in three years.

“It’s just not true,” he said. “All of participation is down [across a number of sports],” but he attributed to these to the “age of specialization” when kids and parents are counseled to devote themselves to a single sport in order to improve their chances of success at the collegiate or professional level.

“That’s not good for kids,” the commissioner said. “It puts too much pressure on kids who already have too much pressure.”

When pressed about the nickname of the NFL’s Washington franchise, Goodell acknowledged the strong opinions of the supporters of the moniker, which some have deemed racist.

“The team feels pretty strongly about the tradition and honor that it presents with its name,” he said. “There’s obviously a very strong view in the public, and in fact quite strong in the sense that they support the Redskins’ name.”

Asked if he thought the nickname was a racial slur, Goodell offered Brennan a sharp response: “It’s the name of a football team, Christine. I grew up as a Washington Redskins fan, as you know. I always looked at that as something we were proud of.”

Goodell also defended the league’s policy on marijuana, which last year raised the threshold for a “positive” test and increased the number of positive tests it would take to trigger a player’s suspension. But he says the league sees value in a policy against marijuana, regardless of the recent decriminalization of the drug in multiple states.

“Our medical advisers are telling us not to abandon our policy,” he said. “They still think it’s important for the health of our players not to be smoking marijuana or ingesting marijuana in any way. That’s what dictates our policies.”

Goodell was in town for the 2015 NFL Draft, which is being held in Chicago for the first time in approximately a half-century. Held in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall since 2006 and in New York since 1965, the NFL had the luxury of exploring other locations when the venue became booked on the league’s preferred dates for the draft.

“We had the opportunity to look to see where would we take this to make it more successful, how could we reinvent the draft,” he said.

He said Chicago had “over-delivered” in terms of the city’s preparation for and participation in hosting the draft and said he expected attendance for the three-day extravaganza will eclipse 100,000.

Though he declined to commit to returning the draft to Chicago next year, he predicted fans will be amazed by the show the league and the city are putting on.  “I think what we’ve seen here and what I believe will unfold over the next few days is something really extraordinary,” he said.