The NFL’s tobacco moment

image001 If you are looking for a case study on how not to manage a corporate crisis, you could do worse than consider the way the National Football League is dealing with the mounting controversy over head injuries and their long-term impact on the health of its  players.

The league has denied the problem. It has stonewalled the press. It has ducked responsibility. It has acted arrogantly. It has come across as more concerned about the owners’ bottom line that the well-being of its players—likely because it is.

The league, it seems, has learned nothing from corporate America, where companies that are responsible and responsive, transparent and accountable do well in the long run.

I write this as an NFL fan who wrote a book about the league’s preeminent television showcase, Monday Night Football, many years ago. I’ve been following the emerging NFL head-injury scandal since blogging about it back on Super Bowl Sunday in 2007. It was clear by then–actually, long before–that the NFL didn’t take concussions seriously enough, that players were routinely sent back into games after being knocked out and, more generally, encouraged to suck it up and play hurt. My brother Noel Gunther has followed the story for years on the excellent website, about preventing, treating and living with traumatic brain injuries, that he runs for the public television station WETA. In fact, he tried years ago to film a story about concussions in the NFL, got permission from the Chicago Bears and its sympathetic team doctor but was then stymied by the league office–which appears to be typical of the way the NFL has responded legitimate inquiries into its conduct.

Even today–after years of accumulated evidence that concussions caused by the hard hits that are part of football have taken a long-term toll on NFL players, in the form of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, suicides and the like– a pamphlet that the league gives to every player about head injuries says: “Research is currently under way to determine if there are any long-term effects of concussion in N.F.L. athletes.”

Sure–just as the tobacco industry told us that more research was needed to determine if there were any long-term effects of smoking.

We all know how that worked out. The NFL ought to be lining up lawyers right about now to defend the league against the lawsuits that are surely on the way.

Before offering some unsolicited advice to the NFL, let me give a shout-out to two heroes of this sad saga. One is Alan Schwartz, a New York Times reporter who has tenaciously pursued the football-concussion story for three years, if not longer. Thank goodness, in this case, for the mainstream media. The other hero is a 6’5″-inch, 270-lb Harvard graduate named Chris Nowinski who, in an unlikely career move, became a professional wrestler, got worried about the concussion issues, connected with football players and their families and eventually wrote a book called Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, about the issue.

So what should the NFL do?

Acknowledge the problem, and invite outside scrutiny. The league should admit the obvious—that the hard hits and concussions that are part of pro football frequently leave players with long-term health problems. Despite all the equipment players wear—and the league has worked to improve the quality of helmets—football’s a dangerous sport. Admit it. Bring in qualified, independent doctors to do studies and determine just how bad things are.

Put doctors on the sidelines whose loyalty is to the players. Right now, the doctors are hired and paid by the teams. You’d hate to think so, but some doctors apparently think their job is to get players with head injuries (or other hurts) back into the action, despite the risks. I suppose you can’t stop an athlete from playing hurt, but you can align the incentives so the physician puts the health of the player first.

Take care of retired players. The league’s pension and medical benefits don’t cover all players. They should. If a retired NFL player has medical problems that in any way relate to football injuries, the league and the players association together have an obligation to help. By the way, the NFL union bears some responsibility for not sounding an alarm earlier about concussions.

Educate college, high school and club players, their coaches and medical staff. Concussions are a problem at every level of the sport. The NFL could repair some of the damage to its reputation by taking on the job of educating football players everywhere about the dangers of concussions. Imagine how much good a public service campaign could do.

Last week in The Times, the columnist George Vescey wrote a great column about the scandal. Among other things, he said:

The proceedings reminded me of hearings into the coal industry I covered years ago, in Congressional rooms just like this. The miners knew all about the dangerous shortcuts, but they needed the jobs; the companies insisted they were making the mines even safer; and there was always a company doctor who said, Heck, boys, coal dust is good for you, wards off the common cold.

If the NFL doesn’t take care of business, and soon, you can be sure that trial lawyers and regulators will. This isn’t going to end well for the National Football League.


  1. Stuart says


    Good blog. I agree with all your suggestions, but it seems obvious that no matter what is done, playing football will increase your chances of future neurological damage. Is that something we as a society should allow to continue?

    We allow boxing which clearly has the same issue.

    Finally, it has often struck me how little is written about soccer which has collisions as well as the heading of a soccer ball as a key component.


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