The Will Smith-led Hollywood film Concussion will bring the long-running issue of head trauma in football into mainstream view this Christmas when the movie hits theaters. Although the National Football League has been communicating about its health and safety efforts, the film’s release will potentially reignite the discussion on a much broader scale – and the league must be prepared, say comms experts.
On Monday, Sony Pictures released the first trailer for Concussion, which tells the true story of neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered chronic brain trauma in football players, such as Mike Webster [the former Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs player who died at age 50]. As Omalu tries to convince the NFL that the game is hazardous to the brain, he is met with hostility as the league attempts to silence him.
But the NFL has since come clean on the issue. In 2013, the league announced it would pay $765 million to settle claims brought by thousands of former players contending that the NFL concealed a link between football and brain trauma.
And in its most recent health and safety report, the NFL outlined the steps it is taking to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, expanded medical resources, investing in protective equipment, a commitment to the wellness of retired players, and a focus on overall youth sports safety.
The NFL has been working hard to reshape the conversation on this issue with rule changes, initiatives, and investments in concussion research and tech, says Pro Sports Communications CEO Melinda Travis. But with the release of Concussion, the league will need to emphasize its efforts even more, she explains.
"While the concussion issue has been in the news for the past few years, and certainly in the sports industry, a Hollywood film exponentially increases consumer awareness on the issue and will ignite the dialogue on a mass scale," says Travis. "Additionally, when the story is told in that dramatic made-for-film fashion, it is more problematic because it gives people more than just statistics and facts – it tugs on the emotional, human side of this, and that can’t be good for the NFL."
Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, concurs that Concussion is going to "wake up" many people who have only been peripherally aware of this safety issue until now – in particular, parents of football players.
To contend with this, the NFL will have to be prepared to talk about the issue of brain trauma "on a much broader level than they have been," and should specifically have a response plan prepared for critics on social media, Bernstein adds.
The league should continue to highlight their ongoing efforts to address the concussion issue and the impact those efforts are having – such as the "millions in grant money going to brain injury research, new innovations and breakthrough ideas, new protocol, community outreach, and all the real things they’ve invested in," says Travis.
Regardless of whether or not people feel those initiatives are sincere, Travis adds, "they are all good things that will accelerate concussion progress and advance sports medicine long term."
Up to this point, the NFL has not been adequately addressing the issue of brain trauma, says Deb Hileman, president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management.
"I haven’t seen the NFL’s public service announcements anywhere, except running on game day," she says. "And I would love to see more of those kinds of things running on a regular basis on a lot of different media outlets to do a better job of spreading the word."
Communicating, however, will not stop football from being a dangerous game, the experts agree. There is nothing the NFL can do to change that. All the league can do is to be clear about the risks involved.
"The public accepts there are risks in all sports; what they do not accept is that there are hidden risks in sports," says Bernstein. "I think the sport will survive as long as the industry is completely transparent about the risks going forward and does everything it reasonably can to be a part of the solution."
Aside from discussing safety procedures going forward, the NFL should also acknowledge truths the movie brings up.
"The NFL must acknowledge how they tried to discredit the research and the researcher; and how they tried to cover up information about the risk of concussion before they finally started to come clean," says Bernstein. "They have a disgraceful history they should not try to minimize."
The key word for the league to keep in mind is "history." The NFL must categorize the film’s events as historical and communicate what they are doing to learn from past mistakes and make progress moving forward.
"They can’t change the past, but I would hope they would continue to communicate and strongly support the kind of programs they are trying to get off the ground to help educate people on safety procedures," adds Hileman.
The main move Bernstein says the NFL should avoid? Criticizing the movie.
"If there are any significant factual errors in the movie, the NFL would not be out of line to correct those, but I would not make a big issue out of it," he says.
NFL director of corporate communications Joanna Hunter said that the organization is not commenting on the movie, but provided PRWeek with a statement from Jeff Miller, NFL SVP of health and safety policy.
The NFL is encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety, and has no higher priority, Miller said.
"We all know more about this issue than we did 10 or 20 years ago," he added. "As we continue to learn more, we apply those learnings to make our game and players safer."
42West’s principal partner Allan Mayer tells PRWeek he is assisting Sony with PR surrounding Concussion.
When Sony was hacked last year, a letter from Mayer was reportedly among the leaked documents, outlining how Sony should prepare for the NFL’s retaliation to Concussion.
In the letter, Mayer said Sony should be ready for the NFL’s dissent, and "establish a clear, positive profile for Concussion." When promoting the film, Sony should clearly define the "David-and-Goliath aspect," citing fan loyalty to teams and the game of football, rather than the NFL, he added.
Mayer did not confirm if Sony’s strategy has since changed.