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Commish: Your Game’s in Trouble

Orlando, Fla. — How is that State of the NFL speech working out for you, Mr. Goodell?

Just days before the signature sporting event in the United Football States of America, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reigns over an empire in disarray.

The family of Junior Seau filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the league in California Superior Court on Wednesday, claiming that the NFL hid the danger of repetitive blows to the head, leading to brain damage that contributed to Seau’s suicide last May.

The case may be bolstered by a recent pilot study at UCLA involving brain scans of five former NFL players that reveals images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage, marking the first time researchers have identified signs of the disease in living players.

Then you have former Oakland Raiders great Tim Brown and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, who are accusing former coach Bill Callahan of “sabotaging” the Raiders in their Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the signature star of this year’s Super Bowl, Ray Lewis, is seeing his heroic warrior reputation get trampled by a number of skeptical observers, including the wife of New England wide receiver Wes Welker. Anna Burns Welker wrote on Facebook: “... Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!”

And by the way, Sean Payton, implicated and suspended in the infamous Bountygate scandal, just got reinstated after receiving a five-year extension from the New Orleans Saints.

Oh, my.

Taken separately, these tidbits may simply be minor distractions as the NFL PR machine revs up to full-throttle cranking out Super Bowl storylines. And while the “Harbowl” theme of two brothers coaching against one another certainly makes for compelling copy, traumatic brain injuries, lawsuits and scandal tend to muck up all that enthusiasm.

Make no mistake: the NFL is still king. It is the most popular sport in the United States. In a Harris Poll released last fall, 35 percent of the respondents chose pro football as their favorite sport. Baseball was runner-up with less than half that audience, at 17 percent.

But Goodell would be foolish to assume that it’s business as usual when the circus packs up for New Orleans for the super spectacle between San Francisco and Baltimore.

Although the Callahan-Lewis-Payton chatter can be dismissed as controversial NFL pillow talk, the brain-scan study could become a nightmare.

The NFL is a violent gig. We all know that. But the damage done to these high-priced athletes, and the price they pay for playing a game they love, is making a lot of people reassess all the cheering that goes on when someone gets “jacked up” (once a popular feature on Monday Night Football telecasts, by the way).

Goodell is in a tough spot. It’s impossible to reconcile the violence of the game with the demands to make it safer. But it’s a tough reality when all those brain-damage warriors keep popping back up into living room. Witness that “punky QB, known as McMahon,” who is barely able to find his way home these days.

Goodell has other legal matters to deal with beyond the Seau lawsuit. More than 2,000 former players filed a lawsuit last June, accusing the league of concealing information linking football-related injuries to long-term brain trauma.

“We knew there was going to be a chance for injury,” Jim McMahon, the quarterback who led the Chicago Bears to a 1985 Super Bowl victory, told ESPN when the suit was filed. “We didn’t know about the head trauma, and they (the NFL) did. That’s the whole reason for the lawsuit.”

The NFL was once the model sport in a country just a click away from making other choices. It still reigns supreme, but Mr. Goodell’s kingdom stands on rocky ground.

Tread carefully, sir.