Survey: NFL players dish on league's biggest issues, owner respect and Roger Goodell

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee runs after catching a pass during pre game warmups before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at EverBank Field.

NFL players worry about their health and safety. Most think their team owners respect them. And some disapprove of the job Commissioner Roger Goodell is doing.

Or, as Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee colorfully puts it, “Dis-a-(blank)ing-prove.”

USA TODAY Sports surveyed 108 players between Dec. 21 and Jan. 19. Players were granted anonymity if they chose, though many spoke on the record. And they were asked three questions: What is the most important issue facing the league? Do you feel NFL owners respect or disrespect players? And do you approve, disapprove or have no opinion on Goodell’s job performance?

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Of the 95 players who answered the question on the league’s most important issue, 39% said health and safety, including CTE, while 18% said compensation, including guaranteed contracts, and 18% said social issues, including protests during the national anthem.

“Trying to figure out more about CTE and making sure that we try to adjust the system and the way you play, so we can protect ourselves,” Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Just get as much information as we can. They can do more to protect defensive guys, too. But the fact that they’re thinking about it is a start.”

Of the 78 players who expressed an opinion on NFL owners, 76% said owners do respect them and 24% said owners do not.

“I have played for two owners,” Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Will Beatty said. “I know that I’ve always felt respected as a person and as an individual, knowing full well that this is a job. We have a job to do. We have an obligation to the owner. We have an obligation to the team, to our families. That is what we signed up for.”

And of the 42 players who expressed an opinion on the job Goodell is doing, two-thirds said they disapprove and one-third said they approve.

Philadelphia Eagles guard Brandon Brooks was among the majority who offered no opinion on Goodell. “For the league, he’s done a great job,” Brooks said. “Other than that, he’s been so-so. He’s definitely working more for the owners. I’m indifferent.”

Most important issue facing the league?

Other issues — in addition to player safety, compensation and social issues — mentioned by players as most important: 5% said TV ratings and growing the game while 3% said officiating and 3% said player discipline and fines. Other issues receiving votes included communication between the league and players, larger practice squads and confusion about the catch rule.

“You might say player safety, but you can go with bread,” said the Jaguars’ Lee. “The biggest aspect is guaranteed bread. All these other sports … in hoops, they may get an elbow every now and then, but we’re out here taking shots. Crazy shots.”

Lee brought up Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spinal injury in Week 13 of the NFL season.

“For him not to have as much guaranteed bread” as players in some of the other major professional team sports “is ridiculous,” Lee said. “You know what they’re going to hit you with: ‘You’ve got more players in football.’ But look at the money (the NFL) makes every year.”

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Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara mentioned guaranteed contacts first, and then: “Can I keep going? Lifetime medical” benefits.

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews cited fines: “I just feel like the way they take people’s money — I understand there has to be punishments — but some of the amounts that they take away from people is kind of crazy to me. I just feel like they take money from us way too much.”

Green Bay Packers linebacker Ahmad Brooks also questioned fines. “I don’t think it’s OK for the NFL to be able to take as much money as they do for guys going out there and doing their job. Football is a violent sport. Things happen.”

Eagles tight end Brent Celek said the regular season should be cut from 16 games back to 14: “In the long run, this game is all about matchups, and the fewer amount of games, the matchups mean more. I think that’ll make it more popular in the long run.”

One player who asked not to be identified said that the league says it is all about player safety but doesn’t act that way: “How can the league be about player safety when they have us playing on Sunday and then (again on) Thursday Night games? … That’s not player safety.”

Then again, one player said the game is getting too soft. “At the end of the day,” that player said, “we signed up to play football, not to avoid contact.”

Do NFL owners respect or disrespect their players?

“I think 100%, they respect the players,” the Eagles’ Celek said of owners. “Guys are working for them. I think some guys can take it like they’re not respected because (the owners) are trying to do business.”

Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis figures that some owners respect their players and some don’t. “It’s probably half and half,” Lewis said. “I know our owner respects us. That’s all I can speak for. But just hearing guys talk and having friends on other teams and just being socially aware, you never know.”

The Jaguars’ Lee said he does not believe that owners respect players: “The NFL owners are more of a sense of, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ”

One player, who asked not to be identified, said that “the top guys get paid respect. And everybody else …” He didn’t need to finish the thought.

Another player who spoke anonymously did not take a position on whether owners respect players because he said he just doesn’t know: “If you had asked me this last year, I would have been, like, ‘Yeah, easily they respect the players.’ Now, it’s just so much going on, you don’t know.”

The player cited a closed-door meeting about players protesting racial inequality at which Texans owner Bob McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” McNair later apologized and said he was using a figure of speech and was not referring to NFL players.

“I would never have expected the Texans’ owner to say that,” the player said. “That was wild. … (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones saying he would fire players for protesting during the anthem, that’s crazy too. I would have never thought he’d say something like that. Now it’s kind of like, I don’t know. I am in the midpoint. You have to stay woke and know what you are dealing with.”

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Goodell is doing?

The Titans’ Matthews offered no opinion: “It’s tough, because it’s not always him, I feel like. It’s collective. He has to answer to owners. Owners want things done a certain way.”

Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne disapproved: “Owners have all the money and it’s all about them. Whatever they want, they’re going to get.”

Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny also disapproved, citing Goodell’s authority on player discipline: “With the situations he’s been given — they are difficult situations — he’s proven time and again that that we need experts to handle it.”

One player, who asked not to be identified, said: “He doesn’t work for us. He works for the owners. So we’re not supposed to like what he’s doing.”

Which brings us back to the Jaguars’ Lee, who disapproved at the top of this story with a certain linguistic flourish.

“We just have a lot of issues that we come to every year and they don’t get fixed,” Lee said. “One we’re dealing with now: Look at the (officiating) calls on the plays. If you’re going to get on our heads, the refs should be just as accountable. It’s crazy. You don’t know what’s a catch and what’s not a catch — and the person who runs the whole joint should get on point with it.”

Contributing: Nancy Armour, Stu Courtney, Turon Davenport, Martin Frank, Lindsay H. Jones, Lake Lewis, Josh Peter, Lorenzo Reyes, Art Stapleton and Jason Wolf.

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