At first glance, Super Bowl 50 is everything a major sporting event should be. It will have two excellent teams, led by legend Peyton Manning on one side and legend-in-the-making Cam Newton on the other – a classic contrast in styles. The stoic old lion on one side and the flamboyant young challenger on the other.
The event has hungry fan bases in Carolina, which is looking for its first Super Bowl title, and Denver, title-less for nearly two decades and still stinging from its shocking blowout loss two years ago to the Seattle Seahawks. The game also has controversies real – the NFL is investigating HGH allegations against Manning – and imagined (the question of whether Newton is just too outgoing for his own good).
Yet all is not well in the league’s Park Avenue headquarters. More Americans are familiar with the brain decay disease CTE than ever before, with details about the post-careers of two stars – one-time Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler and former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill – coming to light in the week before the big game. Both former players suffered from the disease, caused by repeated blows to the head, in the months and years before their deaths. Countless other football legends, including Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Mike Webster, both of whom clearly suffered mightily in their final years, have been affected by the disease.
CTE may have taken a minor reputational toll on America’s favorite sport, but it has yet to significantly cut into the NFL’s bottom line. If Super Bowl 50 breaks viewership records, and that’s a good bet considering the superstar players and quality of teams involved, some will inevitably point to the ratings as evidence CTE is a tempest in a teapot. And safety concerns haven’t stopped brands from lining up over the past year to pay $5 million for a 30-second ad during Super Bowl 50.
Yet other numbers tell a different story, with potentially dire long-term consequences for professional football. The number of teenagers playing high-school football has dropped 2.5% overall since 2008. Youth leagues have seen even larger drop-offs in participation, with the number of players in Pop Warner leagues down nearly 10% in the three years ending in 2013. That prompts the question of whether Americans would continue to tune in to games in droves if the quality of play drops precipitously in the next decade or two.
Anecdotally, I see the effect emerging scientific evidence of quickly deteriorating mental health among former football players has on other fans. Many friends – guys who spend hours a week prepping their fantasy football rosters and even more time watching the actual game – have told me the same thing: "I won’t let my son play football." And when the NFL begins to lose this core audience – us – it has a significant problem.
(Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, with great memories of watching Sunday afternoon games after church with my dad. I don’t plan to stop watching professional football any time soon, but it’s fair to say I now do so with a degree of guilt).
Enter Joe Lockhart
Last month, the NFL brought on an experienced hand as its top communications official: former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. No stranger to media feeding frenzies, Lockhart was a top press aide for former President Bill Clinton as he weathered the scandal resulting from the Monica Lewinsky affair. He’s no stranger to high-stakes situations; in other words, he’s exactly the kind of executive the NFL needed to hire.
Yet it’s unfair to pin the reputation of the sport, which supplanted baseball as the country’s true national pastime years ago, solely on Lockhart. Player-health issues are a decades-long business and moral challenge for the NFL, much more than just a comms issue. Frankly, I’m not sure the game can be made safer – think of all the blows to the head suffered by linemen and legal collisions between running backs and linebackers – without fundamentally altering its character in a way that would remove the violence fans crave.
Here’s what Lockhart can do: encourage the league’s leadership to embrace science on brain injury and player safety and adopt transparency on the issue. It might not stop reports that the league stonewalled research, ended business partnerships, or avoided suffering players in the past, but it could help the NFL turn the page and position it as part of the solution instead of denying there’s a problem in the first place. It’d be a good start.
Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.