AKRON, Ohio (AP) — More than 100 youth football players knelt in the grass in front of the white goal post, waiting to strap up their new helmets. First, they got a warning from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
"You've still got to play the game by the rules," Goodell said. "You don't use your head as a weapon. You don't use your helmets as a weapon. They're there to protect you."
Goodell took his message about player safety to the youngest level of the game on Saturday, attending a football clinic where players received new helmets through a partnership started by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In a session with reporters afterward, Goodell said he expects the sale of the Cleveland Browns to be completed in October; the league is preparing to play the season with replacement officials; and there is no place in the game for bounties like the one that got the New Orleans Saints in trouble.
"Anything that would target or reward players for injuring other players, that's not part of football," Goodell said. "That's not what we're teaching these kids, and it's not what we're going to do in the NFL."
Goodell was in northern Ohio for the Hall of Fame inductions in neighboring Canton on Saturday night. Many of the parents at the youth clinic wore Cleveland Browns shirts and were interested in hearing about the team's sale this week to Jimmy Haslam for an estimated $1 billion. Haslam, a truck-stop magnate from Tennessee, was a former minority owner in the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns won only four games last season and have been one of the NFL's worst teams since they were reborn as an expansion franchise in 1999, managing only two winning records in the last 13 seasons.
"We have 32 teams and we want them all to be viable, but the importance of this team in this community is clear — the tradition, the history of this team," Goodell said. "And the competition in this league is pretty tough, so it's important to make sure all teams have that ability to be competitive.
"And unfortunately, the Browns haven't been as competitive as the fans want or the organization wants, and I know that's what Jimmy Haslam wants to change."
Goodell said the sale is under review by league committees and should be approved by October, barring an unforeseen development.
Player safety has been one of Goodell's overriding interests, sparking changes to outlaw dangerous hits. He said the change in the NFL is filtering down to the young fans who watch.
"There's no question it does," Goodell said. "That's one of the reasons we're so focused on making sure we do things right at the NFL level in every aspect, whether it's on the field or off the field.
"Playing the game right has an impact on everyone who watches. So we want to make sure we're doing it right so when they emulate them, they'll do it the right way."
Consumer Products Safety Commission Chair Inez Tenenbaum started a pilot program this year to replace helmets 10 years or older for youth leagues. The NFL, the players' union and the NCAA are among those donating money to the program, hoping to get 13,000 new helmets to youths in northern Ohio, the California Bay area, the Gulf Coast and the New York City area.
"Make no mistake that change is happening at the youth level," Tenenbaum said.
Former NFL quarterback Warren Moon told them he got his first concussion at age 11 in a youth football league. He said injuries are part of sports, but can be diminished by having good equipment and playing the game properly.
The Hall of Fame quarterback acknowledged that some of the parents sitting in folding chairs around the perimeter of the field had concerns about their children playing the sport.
"I know there are a lot of nervous parents out there," he said.
The players got their helmets and started drills as part of a clinic teaching various aspects of the game. Janice Wright of Akron sat in a folding chair and made a video of her grandson, 11-year-old Andre Hilton, playing catch in his new, gray helmet and blue-and-white jersey with No. 42.
Wright has read about NFL players suffering long-term damage from concussions and warned her son to play safely.
"He always says, 'I hit 'em with my head,'" Wright said. "I say, 'You don't do that anymore.' I told him they're trying to change that.
"I'm glad he's here (at the clinic). He thinks you've got to knock 'em down, hit 'em hard. I was telling him about the people that had concussions."
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