The National Football League is in the unenviable position of managing the tragic death of a player and continued concussion worries—as well as the possible connection between the two—when the focus should be on the playoffs.
Monday's front page of The Wall Street Journal
featured a somber photo of Kansas City Chiefs players with their heads bowed Sunday to remember victims of domestic violence. Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend on Saturday and then drove to the team’s practice facility and killed himself, according to reports.
No doubt, the NFL is a honed PR machine, fully equipped to handle a flood of media for both positive and negative stories, but this is a double-whammy.
With the Belcher apparent killing and suicide, the NFL is taking a smart stance by not discussing the actual incident, but instead focusing on domestic violence in general. The focus on the issue takes the conversation away from the tragedy and creates a teachable moment when discussion on domestic violence is high.
Fans of the Chiefs, who had been wearing black to protest the team’s eight-game losing stream, looked past the miserable performance this season and instead donned red to acknowledge the tragedy and support domestic violence awareness.
Even if this horrible story has some lessons and raises awareness, it also opens other issues about NFL players and the dangerous profession, particularly as it relates to concussions.
The Belcher murder/suicide is a domestic violence issue, but the NFL now has to address whether it relates to the dangerous life of profession football players, and what the organization can do to safeguard the health and well-being of other players.
The NFL has long tried to take a leadership role in the area of concussions, but now it is facing new questions about its real commitment as the media makes connections
between the tragedy and long-term brain injuries. For instance, The New York Times reported
on the latest study by the scientific journal Brain
, while researchers in Boston released a report that included the cases of 33 former NFL players diagnosed after their deaths with brain damage linked to repeated concussions.
The league’s new policies to protest its players might not be enough. The NFL is the target of federal lawsuits by more than 3,700 former players who allege that for decades the league failed to protect them from concussions and their long-term effects.
With the Belcher case not disappearing anytime soon, the NFL needs to somehow address the connection between the tragedy and the dangerous work environment.
Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor. He heads up the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.