Going head to head in battle with concussion


AMERICAN FOOTBALL SUPERBOWL XLVI:The NFL will air an ad during the Super Bowl on the controversial subject of player safety, JUDY BATTISTAreports

TO THE usual line-up of beer and car commercials on Super Bowl Sunday, add this: one about player safety.

For the first time on Sunday, the NFL, currently the target of more than a dozen lawsuits alleging it deliberately concealed information about the effects on players of repeated hits to the head, will use one minute of its own commercial time during its signature event to address player safety, its most critical and sobering problem.

“It is your biggest stage, you’ve got a massive audience, a massive casual audience, and this topic is probably one of the most important topics for casual fans, particularly mothers,” Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, said about the decision to inject a serious subject into the over-the-top-party.

The NFL spent several million dollars on the commercial and the construction of an accompanying website – nfl.com/evolution– that will go online on Sunday and give detailed information about the history of the game and various rule changes. By using 60 of the 150 seconds of advertising time it is allotted during NBC’s telecast of the Super Bowl, the NFL is taking away time it could use to promote other aspects of its business, including more traditional subjects like the NFL Network. The average cost for 30 seconds of ad time during the Super Bowl is $3.5 million.

The decision was initially met with scepticism and concern even by some league executives. Among those who supported the idea, according to Waller, were the owners of the teams that will play on Sunday, the New York Giants’ John Mara and the New England Patriots’ Robert K Kraft.

Michael Hausfeld, a Washington-based lawyer who is representing some of the former players involved in concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL, has not seen the commercial. But when told about its message, he said an attempt to artfully portray the NFL as having been concerned about player safety for decades, and doing all it can now to protect players, was “obscuring the reality”.

“I’m troubled by it to the extent that it seeks to portray a position of concern when they really had none,” Hausfeld said in a telephone interview. “They shouldn’t be focused on placing ads. They should be focused on talking to those players who have suffered the concussions and the consequences. And saying ‘What is it we can do?’

“To a lot of people, the ad will resonate that they’re trying. On the other hand, there’s a little bit too much protesting. You’re trying to put yourself in too good of a light – why? You’re trying to deflect your exposure.”

The commercial, directed by Peter Berg, goes out during the final commercial break of the third quarter, uses one long kick return as a way to take viewers through the evolution of the game’s rules and equipment, from the sport’s beginnings on a muddy field in Canton, Ohio, when players wore no helmets or pads, to the present in a brightly lighted Soldier Field.

At one point, a leather helmet peels back to reveal a modern one made of plastic. Later, a player grabs an opponent’s face mask, a violation of current rules. Only the most devoted fan would recognise all the references. Near the end, the horse-collar tackle, only recently forbidden, is featured. But nobody, particularly the casual fan at whom the commercial is primarily aimed, will miss its closing message: “Here’s to making the next century safer and more exciting. Forever forward. Forever football.”

It will most likely stand in contrast to most of the commercials seen during the game. “If you look at what generally works in the Super Bowl, it tends to be animals, and kicking in the crotch does well,” Waller said.

The NFL is famously sensitive about his public image. A year ago, it demanded that Toyota change a commercial highlighting its decision to share crash research with scientists studying football concussions because it included footage of a helmet-to-helmet collision and a reference to a mother worried about her child playing football.

But the NFL has taken steps to try to improve safety, not all of them embraced by coaches and players. Last year it cracked down on hits to the head and neck, including the threat of suspension for repeated violators. The new collective bargaining agreement includes provisions that limit the number of full-contact practices and offseason workouts.

During the regular season, after the Cleveland Browns’ medical staff missed a hit to quarterback Colt McCoy’s head and allowed him to return to the game – he was later told he had a concussion – the league put independent observers in the press box at each game to help detect questionable hits.

During the play-offs this season, the NFL installed video replay systems behind each bench so medical staffs could evaluate hits they might have missed. Those systems will probably become standard by the start of next season, the league said. According to new figures compiled by team medical staffs to track injuries, the number of concussions in pre-season and regular-season games dropped 12.5 per cent from 2010 to 2011, from 218 concussions reported in 321 games last season to 190 concussions in 320 games this season. (By comparison, 141 concussions were reported in the 2006 season.)

At the same time, there has been a sharp jump in the number of days of practice and games missed. In 2006, the league said, the median was an average of half a day missed with a concussion. In 2009, the average was three days. This season, it was up to six days.

On the NFL’s biggest day, the league is taking a very big chance about how the message will be received. “The one kind of black eye the NFL has is probably the health of its players, and this is a great opportunity to target soccer moms who let their kids play,” said Brad Adgate, the senior vice-president of research for Horizon Media. “The object of the Super Bowl ad is not only to be entertaining, it’s also to sell a product. This is a subject the NFL has been very touchy about.

“Finally, they have adjusted that this is a serious issue. Maybe it’s best they adjust it on their terms rather than somebody else doing it for them.”

– New York Times