Indisputable fact: Americans love football. Pretty much every member of every key demographic watches the Super Bowl, even if we’re more concerned with the commercials. But anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with the sport also knows that American football has a big PR problem best summed up in three words: traumatic brain injury.
Is this an old story? Yes–but it’s not going away anytime soon, and eventually the NFL will have to address it to the satisfaction of the public.
The family of former star Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May 2012, filed a wrongful death suit against the league last week. The suit cites Seau’s post-mortem TBI diagnosis and blames the NFL for a perceived lack of oversight in warning players about the negative long-term effects of all those concussions (they’re also suing the company that makes players’ helmets). This is not an isolated case: over the past few years more than 3,800 former players have sued the league in more than 175 independent cases. Is the NFL really to blame for their injuries? We can’t say–but it’s a classic PR conundrum.
Perhaps most importantly, President Obama brought the story back to the nation’s attention right before the Big Game in a recent interview with the rebranded New Republic magazine, saying:
“…if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
This is a common sentiment!
While Obama clarified his statement by saying that most pro football players are adults who get into the sport with full knowledge of the considerable health risks involved, he also faulted colleges for failing to protect the more vulnerable players and said that fans “who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”
We can dismiss this topic all we want, but it will continue to come up every season–and as the lawsuits pile up, it will eventually threaten to scare some skittish advertisers away.
How can the NFL address the issue and minimize the prominence of the debate while also retaining the viewers and sponsors that make it such a profitable organization?