How fortunate the NFL is. There is no more popular entertainment entity and the league is set to get even wealthier with DirecTV likely to pay it another fortune to continue offering “Sunday Ticket.” So, even with all the reports about head trauma former players are suffering and all the concussions current quarterbacks are enduring, there is no credible threat to interest in the league diminishing.
Yet, the game is becoming harder to watch with the constant talk about safety. Harder to watch without wincing when a running back plows into the line only to be stopped with helmet-on-helmet contact. Harder without thinking about the long-term effects on linemen as they bash heads against one another play after play. Harder when defensive players jump up and down celebrating after decking a quarterback.
Like viewers, advertisers aren’t going anywhere. Two years ago, the league asked Toyota to remove footage in an ad about reducing head injuries, which showed helmet-on-helmet contact. Toyota complied.
On Sunday, it will have a pricey spot in the Super Bowl.
Should fans or marketers take a stance against the league and threaten some type of boycott? That's a tough one since the only option really is to sever all involvement.
Truth is, how much can the NFL do? How many rule changes can be made to really reduce risk?
It’s a violent, brutal game. Run into a tackling dummy at even moderate speed and you get a sense how hard the hitting is. As long as heads crush against heads, there will be health repercussions. Unless there’s a return to leather helmets so only the craziest players engage in head-to-head contact, the brain is at risk.
Still, credit the NFL for not just counting its money. It’s shown a concern. It has past and current players to worry about and parents to convince to let their kids play.
Last year, it ran a spot in the Super Bowl about the game’s evolution with a subtext that it is making efforts to make the game safer. The league will have a presence again on Sunday with the “Forever Forward” message that may touch on a similar theme.
The league has an NFLEvolution.com micro-site, which doesn’t duck the safety issue. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been proactive in pressing for rule changes and a clearly a very skilled PR team is doing all it can to stay ahead of the issue.
This week, the micro-site prominently noted President Obama’s much-discussed comments to the New Republic that if he had a son, he may not let him play football. He added there may be changes that would make the game “a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much.”
The president does say he’s more worried about the health impact on unpaid college players. NFL players, he says, have a union, get paid well for the “violence they do to their bodies” and are better equipped to make decisions on the risks they run.
There’s always discussion – mostly with ESPN – whether networks in business with sports leagues are willing to raise troubling issues about them with their news coverage. CBS will face those Sunday.
Certainly, it would be a dereliction of duty if the network doesn’t ask the president to comment more on football safety in an expected Super Bowl pre-game interview. What will be more telling is whether CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms make reference to the president’s take during the game broadcast when so many more people will be watching.
Nantz might refer to himself as an entertainer before journalist. (He’d have to, having done Sony and Papa John’s commercials with NFL star Peyton Manning.) Can comments by the president directly related to what’s before you be ignored? An absence might give media types a lot to chew on, even a lot of fans, especially if there a woozy player limps off the field after a brutal blow. It would be hard to imagine the bold and outspoken NBC's Bob Costas not addressing the matter.
The issue hits on what’s most frustrating about football. The game is becoming more popular and there’s more reason to feel guilty about participating in that surge.