Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The NFL Super Bowl Commercial: Has Dedication to Player Safety Really “Evolved”?

In between a fantastic Super Bowl game, gallons of salsa, Madonna’s half-time show, and many disappointing sexist commercials, I patiently waited for the last third quarter commercial break. Almost a week before, the New York Times ran a story about a Super Bowl commercial which would address player safety. The NFL was taking one minute of its own commercial time (valued in the millions) to talk about its commitment to the safety of its players...a commitment which has been questioned over the years.

The one minute spot opens in Canton, OH in 1906 and follows one long kick return 100 yards (and 100+ years). The design of the commercial is well done as it follows famous players through the years. As the years progress (as documented on yardage lines), the viewers see and hear a discussion of key safety innovations. For example, we see no helmets turn into leather helmets turn into plastic helmets. We also see the addition of the facemask and the elimination of dangerous hits on players (e.g., horse collar tackles). The voiceover (telling viewers, “Here’s to making the next century safer and more exciting than ever. Forever forward. Forever football”) is provided by a veteran linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens- Ray Lewis.

In any occupational setting, there is concern that creating a culture of safety can be difficult, especially when veterans want things to stay “how they’ve always been”. Lewis has 16 NFL seasons under his belt and a reputation for playing with intensity. In many cases, he would be the hardest kind of player to get on board. Therefore, it is ideal for the Evolution campaign to have recruited someone like Lewis as a champion for its mission!

I also thought that the choice of words “safer and more exciting” were important. One concern about the increase in equipment and restrictions on hits is that it destroys the essence and entertainment of football. That essence being big men hitting each other, playing through pain, and ultimately being declared “stronger” and “winner”. So for Ray Lewis to promise that game excitement will actually increase (along with safety) is quite important for a possibly skeptical audience.

In addition to the commercial, an accompanying website was launched to provide detailed information about the history of the game and various rule changes. The website provides a very cool interactive timeline which outlines each decade. For example, the 1960’s bring “the world’s first Super Bowl”. It also brings fibershell and plastic pads, universally worn facemasks and the banning of grasping a runner’s facemask (1962).

From a public health perspective, I’m impressed with the quality and persuasiveness of both the commercial and website. A successful campaign was really necessary for the NFL, considering that it has been criticized in the past for its lack of commitment to player safety. Most notably, there has been much concern about the NFL’s protocols for dealing with player concussions (and the short and long-term consequences of those injuries). In recent years, we have seen a variety of public health strategies to address concussions.

They have developed and/or expanded safety committees to compile and analyze head injury data. We have seen numerous policy changes regarding both on the field play and the treatment of injuries. For example, in 2009 the NFL adopted a stricter statement on return-to-play for a player who sustains a concussion. The 2009 statement advises that a player who suffers a concussion should not return to play or practice on the same day if he shows any signs or symptoms of a concussion that are outlined in the return-to-play statement. In addition, the NFL has increased its use of financial penalties for helmet to helmet hits which are especially dangerous.

We have also seen educational materials for coaches and players regarding concussions. In fact, Pop Health critiqued the materials released in summer 2010 (“Concussion: A Must Read for NFL Players”).

While there is still criticism of the NFL’s commitment to player safety and there is always room for improvement, I think the “Evolution” campaign is effective. Reflecting over 100 years of football through the commercial and website, it is clear to the audience that they have come a long way. They have used various public health strategies to reduce injuries (i.e., equipment innovation, policy change, education campaigns, and probably the hardest strategy- culture change). In Ray Lewis, they have effectively retained a respected veteran to champion the cause. Finally, they have reassured the fans that the game will remain (and even increase) in excitement despite additional safety measures.

What do you think? Was the commercial just a PR opportunity for the NFL to defend themselves against recent criticism and lawsuits regarding player concussions? Or did you find it to be an effective reflection of successful safety innovation coupled with a sincere commitment to player safety moving forward?

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