NFL Commissioner Pens Open Letter Amid Brain Damage Scandal

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a letter Thursday to ten million of his closest friends. He wanted to let everyone know the league is doing everything it can to prevent concussions and that player safety is top priority. His letter came the day after excerpts of the book League of Denial, which details how the NFL ignored the evidence linking football to concussions and long-term brain damage, came out. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks to Audie Cornish about this and other NFL news.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell yesterday sent a letter to 10 million of his closest friends, fans of the country's most popular sports league. Was this Goodell's attempt at finding new pen pals? Well, to explain what the letter was about and other NFL related matters, we're joined by sportswriter, Stefan Fatsis. Hey there.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey Audie.

CORNISH: So what was on Roger Goodell's mind?

FATSIS: Oh, he just wanted to dash off a thousand words to the fans. But he wanted to let everyone know that the NFL has an unwavering commitment to keeping players safe and healthy, that it's added some new rules to stop players from hitting with their heads, that it's donated millions of dollars to research efforts on concussions. This was Goodell's 11th fan letter since 2011. But the timing of this one was pretty stark.

It came the day after the publication of two excerpts from a new book called "League of Denial," written by two ESPN investigative reporters, that details how the NFL ignored or discredited scientific evidence linking football to concussions and long-term brain damage in players.

CORNISH: Plus the NFL recently settled thousands of lawsuits by former players related to concussions. So, I mean, what does Goodell's letter say about how the league is handling the fallout from that?

FATSIS: You know, Goodell didn't even mention the $765 million settlement with the players. There is this book, there is this companion documentary that airs next week. The league needs a public relations strategy to combat all of this. It remains an invulnerable place. There have been 82 reported concussions so far this season. Public awareness has never been higher. Goodell's letter reflects the league's PR message to fans. You can still enjoy this game. It's a violent game, but you can still enjoy it. But know also that we're doing our best to protect the players.

CORNISH: All right. Let's talk a little bit more about the state of play. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their first four games, parted ways with its starting quarterback and, I gather, it was ugly.

FATSIS: Yeah. The quarterback is Josh Freeman. He was a first-round pick in 2009. He threw 68 touchdown passes in his first three seasons. But Tampa last year hired a college coach named Greg Schiano, who apparently didn't like the quarterback quite so much. There were a series of bizarre incidents. There were allegations that Schiano rigged a player vote to strip Freeman of his captaincy of the team. Then Schiano benched him, fined him for missing a couple of meetings. And then someone leaked that Freeman was in the NFL's drug-treatment program. Freeman clarified that it was voluntarily because he took Ritalin once rather than the Adderall that he's prescribed for ADHD. The NFL players' union is investigating that last episode because drug testing is supposed to be confidential. Tampa Bay cut Freeman this week. We'll see how long Schiano lasts.

CORNISH: And meanwhile, a team that's usually in a tough spot is on the up and up, the Cleveland Browns.

FATSIS: Yeah. They beat Buffalo on "Thursday Night Football" last night, 37 to 24. The Browns were supposed to be so bad that they traded their best player a few weeks ago, running back Trent Richardson. Now they've won three out of five games. The bad news last night was their young quarterback Brian Hoyer, who had come on in week three and won two in a row, tore his ACL. The guy he replaced, Brandon Weeden, went back into lineup after the injury, orchestrated a come-from-behind win. So a little bit for both Browns fatalists and optimists.

CORNISH: Finally, Stefan, I know you've got a little NFL tidbit for us, right, a kicker, so to speak. What's going on?

FATSIS: A kicker - not about a kicker. It's about a safety, the San Francisco 49ers' Donte Whitner. He said this week that he is legally changing his last name to Hitner because that's what I do, meaning he hits hard. And he says legally, which is why he's appealing a $21,000 for a hit that he made last week in a game. The NFL says Hitner can change his name. But in order for his name to appear on the back of his jersey, he's got to buy out Nike's inventory of Whitner jerseys before he can wear the new one.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks so much.

FATSIS: Sure, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Stefan Fatsis, author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL." He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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