The NFL’s Concussion Public Relations Problem

The NFL’s concussion problem is no secret. The subject was brought to the forefront of the league in the late 2000’s when ex-Giants star Leonard Marshall headed a negligence lawsuit on behalf of over 4,500 former players against the National Football League that resulted in a $785 million settlement, later amended to over $1 billion. The drama only intensified when in 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers all-pro safety Troy Polamalu publicly stated that he has lied to trainers about the frequency and severity of his concussions.

This clamor, coupled with with further exposure from media such as Marshall’s documentary The United States of Football (2012) and Will Smith’s Concussion (2015), have continued to put NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the National Football League in the spotlight regarding their efforts — or lack thereof — concerning player safety.

The NFL’s Concussion Public Relations Problem

The initial lawsuit didn’t shine a positive light on the NFL, as they were raucously accused of covering up knowledge of the long-term dangers of professional football. The haste with which the league tried to come to a settlement, however, only amplified the effort on their part not to damage their image.

The league took additional measures as the stigma of playing football grew, airing ads the last few seasons trying to combat the increasingly negative associations. In 2015, for example, the league aired a commercial in which moms advocated for their kids playing football, citing increased safety and even labeling it “mom approved.” Their efforts, however, may have been too little, too late.

Recent events have not done the NFL any favors either. Despite the NFL’s policy requiring potentially concussed players to get clearance from an independent neurologist to return to play, players such as Russell Wilson and Tom Savage have been the subjects of controversial rulings that have fans, players, and parents alike questioning its legitimacy.

In week 14, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Wilson suffered a hit that left him shaken up, prompting referee Walt Anderson to send him to the sideline for a checkup. Wilson, however, was in and out of the medical tent within moments, generating uproar on social media regarding the NFL’s concussion policy.

Only four weeks later, Houston Texans quarterback Savage sustained a similar hit that left him on the ground. He appeared to have what many suspected to be a seizure following the hit, yet Savage returned to play the entire next series prior to being taken out of the game. The blunder added fuel to the dumpster fire that is the NFL’s image, with people once again taking to social media to ridicule the concussion protocol.

The NFL’s initial unwillingness to be upfront about what they knew regarding head trauma and football has seemingly become a recurring issue. Between lawsuits and documentaries such as Marshall’s that have defamed the NFL, the league’s image has been set in stone as deceptive and misleading. As a result, their repeated blunders when it comes to player safety are drawing increasing scrutiny and have left them with little to no defense. Not only does the National Football League have a mess of a concussion problem, but now it has a mess of a public relations problem on its hands as well.

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