NFL faces a crisis with no end in sight that could shake the game’s core

Junior Seau, shot himself in the chest. Dave Duerson, shot himself in the chest. Why the chest, you ask? Because they want their brains studied for damage suffered during their NFL careers that probably resulted in post-career trauma and erratic behavior.

Ray Easterling, a former Atlanta Falcons safety, shot himself to death just a few weeks ago. The list is long and growing of former players essentially destroyed by their playing days.

The NFL, arguably the most successful sports brand and product in America, is in deep crisis. And we’re only beginning to see the early edge of its challenge.

There are thousands of players and former players who delivered or received violent hits to the head. Hockey and soccer are among the sports in the same boat. The injuries all really only started getting the attention they deserve in the last few years.

The New York Times pioneered coverage of this foundation-shaking problem for the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell. The Boston University brain research center is at the forefront. It’s called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain dysfunction caused by repeated hits to the head.

The NFL thrives on violent hits. Until a few years ago, ESPN highlighted the “best” ones. The NHL won’t outlaw fighting, fearing negative fan repercussions. At least Roman gladiators knew the Coliseum would be the last arena they were condemned to fight in.

Football’s a great game, exciting, competitive and macho. But by the time players reach the pros — and for the 98 percent who never do — they’ve endured hundreds if not thousands of hits to the head. The NFL is only the place where the players are faster, bigger, stronger and more determined. The combination will continue to destroy players if the league doesn’t step up and change the game. The worse crisis is doing nothing.

The NFL has thrown some committees at this issue, offered condolences, but like a car company whose vehicles keep blowing up on the road, the NFL has largely avoided and dodged the issue. Some rules changed and referees penalized those who hit “unfairly,” followed by fines for the most egregious.

In some ways, the NFL is like Big Tobacco in the 1950s. Everyone smoked. No one foresaw the day when “smoking will kill you” was mandatory on cigarette packs.

Should NFL helmets carry a warning: “DANGER: Repeated blows to the head will result in brain trauma, erratic behavior and possibly death.” This is a league and owner issue. Players, believing they can make millions, will sacrifice themselves. The NFL needs to lead reform.

We know how Big Tobacco handled its crisis. How will the NFL react? Because Junior Seau will not be the last former player to kill himself to end the demons of his playing days.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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