We’re in the season of NFL rules changes – some of which are highlighted in Lanz’s “Talking Sports” this past week. Every year the NFL owners gather, propose, consider and vote on rules changes for the coming season. This year, the “Tuck Rule” makes its way into the history books – alongside Super Bowl XXXVI and the 2001 post-season.
With player safety becoming a mantra of the NFL – take a look at the NFL Communications website. No less than weekly - sometimes more frequent – updates to the player safety activity of the league.
From February: “In December, there was a meeting with the Foundation of the NIH with about 50 different researchers [from] across the U.S. to look at PET scans, other types of scans, equipment, autopsy results and helmets. All of those at the moment are being studied, and the NIH will help decide the best studies in the next year.”
From earlier in March: “Raising Brain Injury Awareness. March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Throughout the month, organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will host events to help educate the public about brain injuries and how to prevent and treat them.”
We get it. Football is an inherently violent, and dangerous game – highlighted by high profile suicides, such as Junior Seau. Do a Google search – you’ll come up with articles on brain injury research from this year and going back to Ted Johnson, formerly of the Patriots, coming out about his depression and divorce back in 2007. The news is not new.
The NFL is also a business. This, too, is not new. This is a business that prints money in the basement of their offices. But flush with money or not, at the end of the day businesses run on their EBITDA. One improves EBITDA (or cash flow) by increasing incoming revenue and by reducing costs. Hardly rocket science.
So it comes as a shock that the league and Riddell – the leagues’ official helmet provider – are facing lawsuits that accuse Riddell of having produced inadequate helmets. Surprising really. “Hey look over here – look at our investment in research!” while holding down R&D costs, production, and procurement costs associated with the most important piece of safety gear on the gridiron itself.
It’s not just about their relationship with one helmet provider. It’s about the entire marketing relationship machine that IS the NFL. To allow an aftermarket attachment to a helmet, violates their exclusive relationship agreement and compromises their other exclusive agreements. One would think that there would be some pressure on Riddell to buy the patent, or to develop safer helmets – if the NFL doesn’t use your head gear, who will? I mean, does Bike even make helmets anymore? – and yet it’s not apparent there’s significant progress being made in that arena.
Worse, from the linked article above: “A helmet attachment called ProCap has been shown to reduce the chance of concussion in collision. The NFL committee that deals with brain injuries issued memos warning players that they risked death by wearing it.” Wow. Shown to reduce concussion and the league swears it off – again, I guarantee you it goes back to the marketing machine, as well as the legal liability mitigation machine: maintain your plausible deniability at all costs.
The league is moving toward player safety – Bernard Pollard claims it’s becoming too soft and people will lose interest. Instead of improving the equipment that will allow the game to be played as it has been, the rules are being changed. As sacrilegious as it sounds coming from a current player – he’s probably not wrong.
It’s the marketing success of the league that is forcing the league to make the rules changes instead of focusing on the making the equipment safer. Certainly, some rules changes are for the best – if you’re truly interested in player safety, you have to look at all options. Arguably, the addition of equipment could actually be a cause of player injury – consider this: helmet-to-helmet contact only really becomes an issue once the helmet is no longer leather. I’m not arguing returning to leather helmets, I am however arguing that if player safety is really the #1 priority, we’re not dicking around with press releases, small research grants, and tweaking rules to make it appear as though we’re progressively improving. We’re forcing our equipment suppliers to demonstrably improve their product quality and safety, we’re demonstrably committing to a sustained research and development program that adds to the body of knowledge, which would then better inform the research behind helmet safety.
BUT – that kind of investment threatens EBITDA, threatens their marketing machine, and threatens their legal position in current and future legal action. So, we’ll continue to watch the league suffer a thousand paper cuts defending their untenable situation, and continue to watch the league propose rule changes like eliminating the kickoff.