The NFL’s Biggest Headache

As part of its internship program, Navigator asks its interns to write a blog post about the intersection of communications and an area of personal interest. First up, resident football fan Julian Caldwell.

The 2016 NFL season saw record revenues of $16 billion. The average NFL salary on a 53-man roster is $1.9 million, with the highest paid player, Oakland Raiders Quarterback Derek Carr, making $25 million. These are good times for the NFL, its players, and its fans.

Why then, are more NFL players retiring before they reach the age of 30? For professional athletes, their late 20s and early 30s are the prime of their careers. So far this offseason, 14 players have walked away from the sport altogether. In 2016, 20 players retired under the age of 30. This is in stark contrast to 2011, when only 5 players retired before the age of 30. More players are giving up millions of dollars in salary during their prime, rather than playing in a league they have worked their whole lives to be drafted into.

According to John Urschel, a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, one of those reasons is the rise in research linking football to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is caused by repetitive brain trauma and multiple concussions, which, in football, is all too common. CTE is a degenerative disease that spreads slowly through the brain, killing brain cells and affecting a patient’s mood, behaviour and memory.

On July 25, Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, published the findings of her 9-year study on the brains of 202 deceased football players. Of the 202 brains that were collected, 111 had played in the NFL, with the rest having played in semi-professional, college, and high school. Incredibly, 110 of the 111 former NFL players were found to have CTE. The severity of CTE corresponded with the intensity of the play, with the greatest severity being found in former NFL players.

McKee’s study discovered  a high probability that CTE “may be related to prior participation in football.” The findings of this study are one of the reasons John Urschel decided to hang up his cleats. Urschel is one of the most educated players in the NFL (he will continue to pursue his PhD in mathematics at MIT) and has once said that his ability to do high-level math problems was temporarily affected by a concussion. If one of the most academically accomplished players in the NFL decides to retire because he is worried about the effects football has on his brain, what message does this send parents of children who are thinking of joining the sport?

On Monday, July 31st, days after the CTE study was released, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was at the New York Jets practice facility and answered questions at the team’s fan forum.  When asked about recent improvements to player safety, Goodell downplayed the link between CTE and football and said, “the average NFL player lives five years longer than you, so their lifespan is actually longer and healthier. And I think because of all the advancements, including the medical care, that number is going to even increase for them.”

Further, Goodell said, “I think that one thing everyone agrees on is there’s an awful lot more questions that there are answers at this point.”

These comments are in sharp contrast to Goodell’s own comments from last year, when he  confirmed statements made by Jeff Miller, the NFL’s top medical and safety official, that there “certainly” was a link between head trauma received in football and CTE. This follows years of denying that there had been any link between CTE and football, and a $1 billion settlement in 2016 to compensate former players who had accused the league of hiding risks of head injuries from them.

Despite Goodell’s claims, fans and observers can see that football is undergoing a crisis. With more evidence of the long term and deadly effects of repeated head trauma, parents will steer their kids away from football towards other sports, and more players will choose to end their careers early. Not only will these actions decrease the quality of the NFL, but they might irreparably affect the popularity and revenue that the NFL currently generates.

The NFL is not the only major sports league having problems admitting there is a problem with CTE. Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, has consistently denied that there is a link between concussions and CTE. Last year, former Canadian Football League commissioner Jeffrey Orridge also denied the link between playing football and the development of CTE. With more and more evidence coming to light to the contrary, major sports leagues are going to have a hard time continuing to justify the dismissal of CTE evidence.

When companies or organizations deny reports that identify negative impacts on their employees, they get lambasted in the media and by the public on social media. What makes these major sports leagues unique is that their passionate fans continue to  financially support teams while simultaneously criticizing  the league’s leadership. Fans say they are angry and disappointed with the NFL’s reaction to CTE, but then tune in every Sunday or  buy their favourite player’s jersey. This insulates the NFL brass from the effects of their decisions, while doing little to reassure fans and players about the sport’s safety.

But this support and goodwill will one day run out. It will be a gradual process: parents will stop their kids from playing football because of the dangers of CTE, and kids that would have been great football players become baseball, soccer, basketball, or tennis stars. The quality of play will suffer, and this will cause fans to turn to one of the other major sports that offers a more exciting product. The response from the NFL’s leadership has done little to prevent this outcome.

By constantly changing his public statements on CTE, Roger Goodell is effectively telling fans that he, as the company’s head, is not confident in his organization’s ability to develop a full and honest response to the problem. Fans want to believe in the positive aspects of sport and be reminded of its numerous and feel-good stories. If the NFL is unable to develop an honest and sincere response to CTE, fans will turn away.

If the NFL wants to continue to be a staple of any fan’s Sunday, it needs to develop an honest, straightforward response and plan to deal with CTE. This will not come from ending the league’s  relationship with the National Institutes of Health for Brain Research, but by actively continuing to fund research and introduce more safety measures for its players. If the NFL is more transparent about the risks that football has on their player’s brains, people will recognize that they are trying to make the sport safer. If they don’t, and Roger Goodell continues to sidestep and change his message when asked about CTE, then both the public and players will never believe that the NFL is actively trying to make football safer. Instead, fans will see the NFL as self-serving and reckless with the lives of the very players fans tune in to watch.

If the NFL acknowledges the danger of its sport, while working openly and honestly to correct and prevent the problem, all the while explaining this to fans, then the league will be able to survive this crisis. Without an honest, clear  message, the NFL will struggle to hold its fan base. New initiatives like the NFL’s concussion protocol and rule changes introduced in 2016 will help address the issue, but for many fans they are seen as too little, too late. If fans understand the risks associated with the sport and the moves the league is taking to address them, they will continue to tune in. If they see the league as putting at risk the safety not only of professional athletes, but of everyone who picks up a football, then the NFL will fall from grace — likely taking its leadership with it.