On a day the NFL announced a $100 million initiative toward improving player safety, Commissioner Roger Goodell had a message for parents who are skeptical of letting their children play football due to the concussion risk.
"I understand the skepticism of the NFL,'' Goodell told Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview on TODAY Wednesday. "But let me just go to the American Academy of Pediatrics. They have looked at this issue of young kids coming into football, and they have said, 'It's about proper coaching, improve the techniques. Do the things necessary to limit contacts.' Those are changes that we have been making."
Goodell believes changes being implemented at the lowest levels of football are making the game safer.
"I went by a youth football practice the other day and was watching it,'' he said. "I see how they're teaching the game differently. That's great for football, but that's also great for all other sports."
In an open letter in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Goodell announced the league's "Play Smart Play Safe" initiative in which $100 million is being put toward medical research and developing new technology to make the game safer for its players.
"I think it'll change the game immediately,'' Goodell said. "We have invested significantly in the past to further research, but we've also not waited on research. We've made rule changes. We've made changes in our equipment. We've done things to improve the way the game is played.
"We're gonna invest in research, we're gonna invest in science. Some of that will take a few years to develop. But we think we're changing the game today."
In 2009, Goodell testified before Congress about the link between concussions and the NFL, listening as Rep. Linda T. Sanchez of California said she felt the league denied the connection between football and head injuries like the tobacco industry denied the link between cigarette smoking and cancer.
"I disagree entirely with that position,'' Goodell said. "In fact, in 2009, 2010, was the time when we put that on our poster that will sit in our locker room. And that poster says that if your brain injuries and repetitive brain contact is not properly managed and done properly, then that can lead to long-term health consequences, so I think we've been a leader in this area. We've been very clear about the steps that we've had to take to make our game safer."
The NFL has also been criticized for promoting an improved concussion protocol but not always putting it into practice. Lauer cited an instance last season when Rams quarterback Case Keenum appeared to clearly suffer a head injury near the end of a loss to the Ravens when he bounced violently off the turf but returned to the game 30 seconds later.
"(My reaction was) that our protocol was violated,'' Goodell said. "That that's not right. That Case should've gotten medical treatment, and what we did is we worked to try to evaluate our medical protocols, improve on them and make sure they're properly communicated to every medical personnel in the league.
"We strengthened that so that if anyone does violate our protocol on the team level, they are subject to discipline."
Goodell noted that no one lost their job for the violation of the protocol in the case of Keenum.
"No, we watch the protocols,'' he said. "We make sure that they're followed. It was a medical judgment, is what we always want to rely on. But I think in the future there's going to be discipline if we see protocol being broken."
The issue arose again in the this year's season opener when the reigning NFL MVP, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, took multiple shots to the helmet from defenders in a loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos but was not evaluated by medical staff during the game. Newton said he was not asked any concussion-related questions until after the game.
Goodell told reporters that the medical staff saw no reason to evaluate Newton for a concussion during the game. However, the NFL said in a statement that it will be reviewing the response to how Newton's situation was handled, and Goodell told reporters that the officials "missed at least one" illegal helmet-to-helmet hit and disciplinary action will be forthcoming.
Goodell also responded to skepticism that the new initiative is more about protecting the NFL's image than protecting players.
"I've been in this game for 35 years,'' he told Lauer. "I've known players, I care about our players. I respect what they do on and off the field, and they're still my friends. They're gonna be sitting with me at the game on Sunday. So I care about these players."
Despite the ongoing concussion issue, the NFL is bigger than ever. The seven most-watched U.S. television broadcasts in history are the last seven Super Bowls, and the league routinely has some of the highest-rated broadcasts on network television. NBC, it should be noted, is a broadcast partner of the NFL.
"Every player, every team is subject to the same rules"
Lauer asked Goodell if he thinks the fans care that much about the concussion issue given that it hasn't dented the NFL's popularity.
"Yes, very much so,'' Goodell said. "I hear from our fans on that. They care about our players. They care about them today. They care about them in the future, and they want to know that we're taking care of them and we're doing the best we can to protect them while they're playing and for the years after they get away from the game."
Follow TODAY.com writer Scott Stump on Twitter.