Experts: NFL faces short-term debate, but little long-term business risk from 'Concussion'

Concussions will be back in the media spotlight when the Will Smith film hits theaters on Christmas Day, but that doesn't mean the NFL's business model faces long-term risk.

Will Smith in 'Concussion.' (Image via the film's Facebook page).
Will Smith in 'Concussion.' (Image via the film's Facebook page).

The National Football League faced a media firestorm two years ago about the long-term effects of concussions with the broadcast of the PBS documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Now the league is contending with a dramatized account of the issue, when Columbia Pictures releases Concussion, starring actor Will Smith, in theaters on Christmas Day.

Yet will the motion picture reignite the issue for the league and its stakeholders? Crisis communications pros say it will. 

Michael Kempner, president and CEO of MWW, says the topic could be revisited in a big way. "There is a perception when you live in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago that everyone already knows what happened from the news, but that is not the case. The movie will now expose the issue to millions and millions of people who either knew nothing or little about it," he says. "And for those who did know about the issue, they will now see the story and the players behind it come to the forefront."

John Maroon, president of Maroon PR, which specializes in sports and entertainment PR, agrees the movie will rekindle a debate about the sport’s safety record, but not necessarily because audiences will flock to see it. Maroon is a former VP of communications for the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

"The media coverage is going to be more impactful than the film itself," he explains. "It just renews the media’s interest and coverage of the concussion issue."

He adds that for example, "It has given a larger platform to the doctor portrayed in the film by Will Smith."

The actor plays real-life neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, who in 2002 identified a brain trauma called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in retired pro-football players. He made the discovery after investigating the death of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster from dementia at age 50. NFL doctors and club owners allegedly tried to discredit and silence his findings.

Omalu has used the attention the film is getting to advocate against children participating in the sport.

Earlier this week, he penned an opinion piece in The New York Times with the title, "Don’t let kids play football," arguing there should be a legal age for high-impact sports, just as there is for drinking alcohol, because of the health risks. Omalu’s byline notes that he is working on a memoir, which presumably will recount some of the same territory as the movie.

Yet the crisis communications pros interviewed agree that at the end of the day, the NFL’s business will be just fine despite the growing media attention. The organization is the most profitable sports league in the US, raking in an estimated $1 billion in profits on $10.5 billion in revenue in the 2013 season. It also accounted for the top 20 and 45 of the most watched shows last fall.

"People like me will still be glued to their TV sets with NFL Sunday Ticket," notes Maroon.

Both Kempner and Maroon say the NFL could face renewed pressure to do more to make the sport safer for its players, as well as for young people.

"Over the next 60 to 90 days, you’ll see a renewed PR push from [NFL SVP of communications] Greg Aiello and the team at the NFL to let people know that making a very violent sport safe is a true priority with the league," says Maroon.

He predicts experts may counter Omalu’s opinion on kids playing football, given that protocols have changed.

"They may say, ‘Hey listen, young kids playing football now are not in any more danger than if they played soccer of baseball,’" Maroon adds.

The league can also point to safety programs, such as Heads Up Football in partnership with USA Football, which teaches youth players safe-tackling techniques, or the Head Health Initiative, a four-year, $60 million collaboration to speed diagnoses and improve treatment for mild traumatic brain injury.

The latter involves NFL sponsors, including GE and Under Armour. Contacted by PRWeek, Megan Parker, GE’s director of communications for corporate initiatives, responded, "We are proud of the work the GE-NFL Head Health Initiative is doing to speed diagnosis and improve treatment for mild traumatic brain injury."

She added that the initiative has awarded more than $8 million to 23 winners since 2013.

PRWeek reached out to other NFL sponsors to ask if they plan to respond to the film, but they either did not comment on the record or agree to an interview. One high-ranking PR executive, who did not want comments attributed, said the film isn’t on his organization’s radar.

NFLPA gets an early look
Concussion is scheduled to open a week after the latest installment in the Star Wars canon, so the conventional wisdom is that its commercial prospects are modest at best. However, Will Smith was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role on Thursday, which is often indicative of an Oscar nod. Regardless of its box-office fate, early reviews agree it is a damning indictment of the pro football league.

A review in Variety, for instance, says the "drama pulls no punches in its critique of the NFL."

The league didn’t share its comms tactics in any detail when contacted by PRWeek. But an emailed statement from Aiello said the league "welcomes the conversation" the movie will elicit.

"We view the film as part of an important ongoing national, and international, conversation about concussions," he writes. "We have embraced the opportunity to engage in that conversation and discuss the work we have done through the years to improve player health and safety. It includes rule changes to better protect players, strict medical protocols, investments in independent scientific and medical research, and advocating for concussion safety laws for young athletes that have now been enacted in all 50 states."

He adds: "More attention to the health and safety of athletes is a good thing. We welcome the conversation. The science has advanced, the culture has changed, we are seeing real progress, and this work will continue."

The NFL Players Association has screened the film for more than 70 former players in its Atlanta chapter.

"We also plan to do some other activities around the film [in other chapters] in the coming weeks," says George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs. He adds that it is the union’s responsibility "to our members to manage this."

He says that players during the Atlanta screening responded with such emotions as anger and fear. But many of them have also come away with a "sense of empowerment because knowledge is power."

"We see the movie as an educational tool for us to explain how we got here," Atallah explains. "We know former players have fears of what the game has done to them, and as a union, we have to be able to support players with medical information, counselling – any kind of support they might need after seeing the film."

In 2013, the NFL settled a lawsuit brought by more than 4,500 former players, some of whom are suffering from dementia, depression, and other ailments claiming the league covered up concussion risks. As part of the settlement terms, the NFL is under no obligation to admit wrongdoing and reportedly has virtual immunity from future litigation.

However, a number of former players are appealing the NFL’s $1 billion plan to settle thousands of concussion lawsuits, arguing it should include future payments for CTE, the brain decay that is the subject of the new film.

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