The NFL's challenge: reach the next generation of fans about safety

The National Football League is facing another media firestorm after Tuesday's Frontline documentary about the effects of concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

The National Football League is facing another media firestorm after Tuesday's Frontline documentary about the effects of concussions and traumatic brain injuries. PR pros say the league must continue looking forward in its outreach to fans.

PBS aired its much-hyped documentary League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis on Tuesday night, which suggested the league may have quashed evidence about the damaging long-term health impacts of head trauma suffered on the field. ESPN had been a partner with PBS on the program, but backed out at the last minute, which only heightened media interest in the documentary. ESPN has denied a report in The New York Times that it was pressured to do so by the NFL, a business partner, to sever its working relationship with PBS.

In August, the NFL settled a lawsuit for $765 million brought on by more than 4,500 former players, some of whom are suffering from dementia, depression, and other ailments over allegedly covering up concussion risks. As part of the settlement terms, the NFL is under no obligation to admit wrongdoing. The league has been steadfast in its communications that it has done nothing wrong.

Shift Communications CEO Todd Defren tells PRWeek that the recent documentary is an example of how “some decisions in the past administrations of the NFL are coming home to roost today.”

He says the best way for the NFL's current leadership to rehabilitate the league's reputation “in the long haul is to make sure everything from pee-wee football leagues up to the NFL meets the highest commitment of safety standards.”

But he notes that the NFL can't come straight out and apologize for being negligent in the past, “because if they acknowledge they did something bad, they'll get even more [legal action against them] than they've already had.” He adds that by agreeing to a settlement, the NFL is effectively acknowledging to the public they are sorry and feel compassion for former players with mental and physical ailments, without actually admitting fault.

John Maroon, president of Maroon PR, a Columbia, MD-based agency that specializes in sports and entertainment PR, says there is no denying that the Frontline documentary was powerful TV. 

“It wasn't very balanced [reporting]; regardless, I was riveted by it,” he says. “The bottom line is that the evidence [that former NFL players have brain damage because of their football careers] is overwhelming.”

Still, he says, “the NFL is handling this very well. I think they are focusing very smartly on their Heads Up program, which includes the education of high-school coaches about the proper safety fundamentals for kids.”

“Parents are nervous about allowing their kids to play football. But if they don't play football, they don't grow up to become NFL players or, more importantly, don't grow up to become NFL fans,” explains Maroon. “Young people are the future of the sport. And so I think the NFL is trying very hard to say, ‘We do care about the safety of our players, we are looking out for them.'”

Yet while the NFL needs to make clear that it takes care of its players, at the same time, it has to recognize its most ardent fans like the tough-guy nature of the sport and don't want to see it become not as physical a game.

“The league doesn't want to get to the point where football becomes flag football or touch. It is inherently a violent game and that is part of the draw. This is like ancient Roman stuff,” Maroon adds. “I think fans in general, big football fans, and I count myself in that category, are very conflicted by the whole thing. They understand the need for safety but they also don't want to see the violent nature and inherent danger of the game, which is its great appeal, taken away.”

PRWeek reached out to more than a dozen PR agencies – both major firms and those specializing in sports PR – and all but three declined to be interviewed for this article. The agencies didn't disclose their reasons for not commenting.

The NFL also declined an interview for this article. However, in an emailed statement to PRWeek, Jeff Miller, the league's SVP of health and safety policy, said, “For more than two decades, the NFL has been a leader in addressing the issue of head injuries in a serious way.”

“Important steps have included major investments in independent medical research, improved medical protocols and benefits, innovative partnerships with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], [National Institutes of Health], General Electric, and others to accelerate progress,” he added. Miller also mentioned “changes in rules, equipment, advocacy in support of state laws to enhance safety in football and youth sports, and programs such as Heads Up Football, now reaching hundreds of thousands of young players.

“The NFL has made a profound commitment to the health and safety of its players that can be seen in every aspect of the game, and the results have been both meaningful and measurable,” he added. “We will not waiver in our long-term commitment to a better and safer game at all levels.”

Heads Up Football is a nonprofit that launched across the US at the start of the year. It was created by USA Football, the NFL's official youth football development partner. In September, the NFL launched Head Health Challenge II, an open invitation that will award up to $10 million for new innovations that can protect the brain from traumatic injury or track head impacts in real time. The initiative is a partnership with apparel brand Under Armour and GE, both of which are NFL sponsors.

Mary Scott is managing partner at Matter, Edelman's sports and entertainment marketing group, which worked with the NFL on Head Health Challenge II. Before that, she worked at the NFL, where she handled corporate communications on behalf of NFL Enterprises, the media development and technology arm of the league and its teams.

“This is a big issue, and the reality is that it's not just football [where there are head injuries]. It affects the sports community at all levels, but football is the highest-profile sport, so the NFL is taking this on as a leader in doing [medical] studies that are broad based and will help more sports than just football,” she says.

Scott adds that, “[NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell has taken some positive strides during his reign.”

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