GREEN BAY – For perhaps the first time in a public forum, commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at Thursday's Green Bay Packers annual shareholders meeting about lower body pads, which are being considered as mandatory for NFL players as early as the 2011 season.
Players are recommended, although not currently required to wear such pads. And many players on the perimeter of the field, such as wide receivers and defensive backs, choose not to wear them.
"One of the interesting things you'll see in equipment is players are actually wearing less equipment today than they were before," Goodell told shareholders in a pre-selected question and answer session. "And we think that's a bad trend; we want to reverse that trend. We think players should be wearing more equipment, the most advanced equipment, because we think it will protect them. Performance is one thing, but doing it safely is another. And we think we can accomplish both.
"So we're actually experimenting this training camp with new equipment – new thigh pads, new hip pads, new rib pads, making sure they're wearing shoulders pads that will properly fit, and the helmet."
Players from 12 NFL teams will be experimenting with wearing new, lighter lower body pads during the 2010 training camp and preseason as a precursor to what may become obligatory one year from now.
"The league will urge players to wear more knee, thigh and hip protection this preseason with an eye toward making the changes mandatory in 2011, said Ray Anderson, the NFL 's Executive Vice President of Football Operations," wrote Michael McCarthy in a recent article in USA Today.
Many players have abandoned the pads in question for the sake for more speed and mobility, especially those that aren't in the trenches and are prone to contact on every down.
Goodell has said that player safety is one of his top priorities, and the NFL has been on the leading edge in the study of concussions and their effects. He took time to educate the shareholders about some of the league's findings.
"We've had committee that's focused on head injuries since the mid-90s, and we have put a tremendous amount of influence in it over the last three or four years," said Goodell. "In particular, we have changed the committee's make-up over the last six months.
"Their entire focus is to focus on what we need to do to make sure we prevent head injuries when they occur, how do we treat them responsibly, and the last is how do we conduct research and make the game safer – not just for the people on the NFL field but every level of football – but frankly, every game that involves active participation and frankly, contact."
But when asked in a press conference with only the media, Goodell was non-committal about research done on lower body pads and the effect, or lack thereof, they have in protecting players, which is in contrast to the high priority placed on concussions and the use of helmets.
"I’m having a hard time understanding why you need research to say that padding is going to protect you, that padding is not going to make you safer," said Goodell. "Players have worn those pads for several years, and we’re seeing it being worn less and less, at certain positions in particular. I think it’s a balance between performance and safety. A lot of times people want to perform at the best level. We would like to be able to say, ‘We want you to perform at a high level, but we want you to do it safely.’"
Questions exist whether all professional players necessarily need lower body pads as it's unlikely they would prevent the some of most debilitating of injuries below the waist, like ACL or hamstring tears.
The issue goes hand-in-hand with the concept of the "enhanced season" that would replace two preseason games with two regular season games, in effect making an 18-game regular season.
A number of high profile players, including Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and cornerback Charles Woodson, have come out against the proposed enhanced season citing the toll an extra two meaningful games would take on a player's body.
And so it's not surprising Goodell has made player safety a priority, to find a common ground, and he claims part of the reason he's taking a tour of training camps around the league is to help engage the players and teach them his and the NFL's perspective.
"I am not surprised at all by those reactions, and I have spoken to several of those individuals," said Goodell. "It’s getting people to understand what we are trying to create, how we build a better game, what other things we need to change as part of that. I think we need to make sure the players are informed about that. It is one of the reasons I am going around and seeing 10 different teams in 10 different days, to make sure they understand our perspective on these issues, and I think when they do, they understand the benefits of doing it."
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