MIAMI -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell yesterday denied that the situation described by former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson -- that players return too quickly from concussions -- was rampant throughout the NFL, but said both he and the Players Association are continuing to fund studies about the long-term effect of concussions and how to prevent them.
"I don't accept the premise that [returning from concussions] was common practice, but it does concern me," Goodell said during his first state of the NFL press conference when asked if the allegation made by Johnson -- that he was forced by coach Bill Belichick to get involved in contact practices only four days after suffering a concussion in 2002 -- was typical of how players are treated.
"I think from our standpoint, we want to make sure that our players have the safest possible environment in which to play," said Goodell. "We have spent a great deal of time and energy on the concussion issue. We've had a concussion committee that has been studying this issue from a medical standpoint, including 12 doctors -- five from the outside and seven from the NFL -- that have been looking at this issue and trying to see what it is we can learn about concussions that would be helpful as we go forward, and that's led to new helmet designs, that's led to rules changes, and I think a safer environment for our players.
"I didn't know about the Ted Johnson issue until yesterday afternoon. I would like to know about this further in advance so we can identify these issues further in advance. That disappoints me."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who arrived in South Florida and attended Goodell's press conference, said, "Ted is one of my favorite players. I have a deep affection for him. He's having a lot of problems. He's in my thoughts and prayers."
Johnson told the Globe he suffered countless head injuries during his 10-year career with the Patriots, including back-to-back concussions suffered within days during the 2002 season, when he said the team didn't give him time to recover. Johnson is suffering from severe depression and said, "I don't want anyone to end up like me."
Goodell said a coach's decision should never be allowed to override a medical decision.
"I certainly hope that we will obviously look into this issue . . . that our coaches are always looking out for the medical and the well-being of their players," Goodell said. "I don't think competitive issues should ever override medical issues. So if there's a medical determination that someone should not participate, they should not participate. It is a touchy issue, particularly concussions, when evaluations have to be made about the severity of a concussion. We don't know an awful lot about them despite our study for the last 10 years.
"I think it's difficult to have specific rules because medical evaluation has to take place. It should be a medical [issue], not be football or anything else [whether an injured player returns to the field]."
A day earlier, Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw said the union created a medical committee to investigate the issue along with a panel from Duke University. He conceded that situations like Johnson described occur and need to be monitored. Several weeks ago, doctors said former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters's suicide was probably related to a post-concussive disorder, a shocking revelation. Johnson's case has added fuel to the fire.
Goodell, who addressed the NFL's image in light of a tragedy and many arrests, has been tougher than his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, on matters of discipline and indicated that remains a serious issue. Nine Cincinnati Bengals have been arrested in nine months and Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was shot to death outside a night club on New Year's Day.
"We have to do something about it," Goodell said. "I think it's an incredibly important issue. One incident is too many in my book. I think we need to reevaluate all our programs. Gene and I are going to put together a group of players we're going to meet with in the next several weeks to give us their perspective on what's really happening and what are the issues so we can try to learn something first.
"We continually tell our players and coaches that we're raised to a higher standard in the NFL and we have to exceed that standard. I firmly believe that and I think Gene does also. We have to make sure our players are accountable, but I think also our clubs have to be more accountable and we will be reevaluating our position to see if there are ways we should make our clubs more accountable in the offseason. I think we all take it personally. I think it's something we have to address."
The same is true of the growing concern over the use of steroids and human growth hormone. Goodell has tightened up the penalties and expanded testing, but said he remains unsure of what approach to take with HGH.
"There is no reliable test for HGH right now," Goodell said. "We are investing money to develop that test. I don't know if that will be a blood test or urine test. We are going to pursue both. We keep an open mind about the use of a test, whether it be blood or urine. I do understand, though, what Gene is raising as far as the complications of blood tests. But until that technology is developed, I think it's premature for us to make any decisions."
Goodell took pretty much the same position with every major issue raised, from the collective bargaining agreement and the possibility owners will opt out of it in 2008 to the status of Los Angeles, which has not had an NFL franchise in over a decade. No decisions, more testing, more study, more talks. Ted Johnson will be among those waiting to hear what comes from at least one of those talks.