The N.F.L.’s concussion crisis has also engulfed the N.C.A.A., high schools and youth leagues, which are spending more to train coaches, to employ doctors to patrol the sideline and to buy liability insurance to protect themselves from lawsuits. With youth participation in football in decline, the N.F.L. has funneled tens of millions of dollars to U.S.A. Football, which has tried to reassure parents, mothers in particular, that it is safe to let their sons play football.
Tagliabue, of course, wasn’t alone in dismissing concerns about the impact of concussions. On most big issues, he (and other commissioners) take direction from team owners, who no doubt want to keep growing their businesses.
“The N.F.L. has a lot to answer for on concussions, and they are paying the price for it,” said Warren Zola, a sports lawyer who teaches at the Boston College Carroll School of Management. “Is there enough to pin that on one person? You had all these owners who were printing money and didn’t want to do anything to slow that train down.”
At a basic level, all Halls of Fame often take an amoral stance to off-field behavior. But some sports like baseball have drawn a line on some issues. Pete Rose, the sport’s career hits leader, remains a pariah in Cooperstown for betting on baseball games. The career home run king, Barry Bonds, is among the many stars tainted by steroids who have been snubbed by writers who elect Baseball Hall of Famers.
Still, the N.F.L. appears particularly adept at skipping over lines in the sand.
Some of the league’s first owners were bootleggers and gamblers who owned racetracks and betting syndicates, so perhaps it was not entirely surprising that Alex Karras, the Detroit Lions defensive tackle, was also among the 15 new entrants. Karras was suspended for the 1963 season because he bet on N.F.L. games and associated with gamblers and “known hoodlums.” Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung was suspended along with Karras, and he entered the Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 2018, the Hall of Fame elected Ray Lewis, who was indicted on two murder charges in connection with stabbing deaths outside an Atlanta nightclub in 2000. The murder and assault charges were dropped after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice and agreed to testify against two co-defendants.
Two years ago, Tagliabue, a longtime lawyer for the league before he became commissioner, admitted that he would like to take back his “pack journalism issue” comment. His mea culpa, though, was far from an admission that he should have taken the issue of brain health more sincerely.