NFL faces image-damage contrast

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2012 - 8:25 AM

The league enjoys popularity and profitability, despite growing claims of players' health issues.

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When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited Minnesota in April in support of a Vikings stadium, little was said about other persistent league problems.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune file

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Just days before Junior Seau killed himself last month -- creating another set of unflattering headlines for the NFL -- Commissioner Roger Goodell breezed into the governor's office in Minnesota and passed a fan who described seeing Goodell as "meeting God's assistant."

The two conflicting images have increasingly come to define the $9.5 billion-a-year business that is the NFL, whose outsized influence and billions in revenue provide contrast to those who now view it as being under siege.

Seau's disturbing death at age 43 took the life of a retired perennial Pro Bowl player, and his family has been debating whether to donate his brain for study. The suicide came as nearly 2,200 former players have filed 81 brain injury-related lawsuits against the league, suits that were consolidated into one master complaint Thursday in Philadelphia.

Still other past NFL stars have sued the league for using their likenesses without being compensated, and the league, in yet another sticky controversy, is disciplining players for putting bounties on opponents during games.

Matt Birk, a former Vikings center who plays for the Baltimore Ravens and is preparing for his 15th NFL season, already has agreed to donate his brain after death for study. He has had three concussions since high school -- one in the NFL -- and talks frankly of the push-pull within his own family over continuing to play.

"Have I had a number of other times where I've felt a little something? Yeah," he said. "People say, 'Are you worried?' I'm not worried because at the end of the day, it's God's will."

But talking of his own predicament and then placing it within everything happening with the NFL, where tweets from players can lead TV newscasts, are two different things.

"It's so much more than a sport now," said Birk, 35.

Many former NFL players, such as George Visger, who played for the San Francisco 49ers briefly in 1980 and suffered multiple injuries, said the league is long overdue for its comeuppance.

"I loved the game," he said. "[But] when I got out, I was so sickened by it. I had to drive myself to the hospital for brain surgery."

An image issue

The immediate priority for the NFL might have more to do with limiting any damage to its image and heading off any sense from parents that football might be too dangerous for their kids -- the league's next generation of players.

After the league's spring meeting last month, NFL officials appeared eager to use Seau's death as a way to tout the NFL's existing programs for helping former players, and cast the death as a larger societal problem.

"We miss him dearly," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of player engagement. "[But Seau's death] gives us a wonderful opportunity, a great platform to talk about what we do and the services that are provided." He added the tragedy enabled the NFL to "become a partner on the broader messaging on things that actually plague our society -- suicide prevention, health wellness."

In an interview last week, however, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy bristled at any attempt to cast the league as being under siege or to prematurely link Seau's death to health issues dating to his playing days.

"What are you attributing the death of Junior Seau to?" McCarthy interrupted. "It's unfair to speculate."

Pittsburgh lawyer Jason Luckasevic last year filed some of the first brain injury-related lawsuits against the league. He represents 370 one-time players, including former Vikings Jim Marshall and Fred McNeill. While the league emphasizes its many health-related programs, said Luckasevic, it was only a few years ago that the NFL described some of the first attempts to link football and brain injury-related injuries as "junk science."

"I think the NFL was absolutely behind the times when it came to dealing with concussions, and I think it was absolutely on purpose," he said.

But Georgia lawyer Bruce Hagen said he suspects the NFL -- despite its claims that the game is not under siege -- might want to convince the public that the concussion lawsuits threaten the nation's favorite spectator sport.

"The NFL would love nothing more than to convince people that this case would end football," said Hagen, who is representing former Packers running back Dorsey Levens in his brain injury case.

Levens said he suffered multiple concussions over an 11-year NFL career, with symptoms including memory loss, headaches and sleeplessness.

Part of the agenda

Brain injuries are only one of the disquieting issues facing the NFL. As Goodell answered 32 media questions following the league meeting in May in Atlanta, the topics ranged from the continuing fallout from the New Orleans Saints paying bounties to injure opposing players to whether the Pro Bowl should continue following allegations that players were giving minimal effort.

He even addressed a league proposal to make Wi-Fi available in NFL stadiums because "we want to make sure fans, when they come into our stadiums, don't have to shut down -- they can bring their devices."

The continuing power of the NFL to capture the sporting public's attention and emotions, even as the league fights a series of court battles, was never more evident than it was at the State Capitol in St. Paul over the past six months.

As the Vikings and Goodell successfully pushed for a public subsidy package for a new $1 billion stadium, Gov. Mark Dayton unabashedly campaigned for the project in a Vikings jersey and superfan Larry Spooner talked haltingly at a legislative hearing of how Vikings games united him with his father.

When Goodell met privately with Dayton and legislative leaders in late April, the media gathering outside the governor's office matched -- and, in some eyes, exceeded -- the coverage of last summer's controversial state government shutdown in Minnesota.

But the Vikings stadium hearings never veered into the NFL's larger issues.

"I never saw a connection" between the push for a stadium and the league's other issues, said Sen. Julie Rosen, the chief Minnesota Senate author of the stadium legislation. "Any industry -- and I believe the NFL is an industry -- [is] going to have their ups and downs.

"I am very impressed with Roger Goodell's leadership. I feel like the NFL has got some issues, but they're going to be handled appropriately. So, we never talked about it" in relation to a public subsidy package for a new Vikings stadium.

On the sidelines

Evan Weiner, an East Coast-based sports commentator specializing on the politics of sports business, said he was not surprised by Minnesota's reluctance to tie the stadium debate to the game's issues.

"It doesn't matter because people just want to be entertained -- that's all," he said. "Junior Seau blowing himself away? [People say], 'It's too bad, but it doesn't impact my life.'"

It might, however, have an impact, depending on whether a parent has a child playing youth football.

In the same month that Seau died, USA Football -- which has sponsorship ties to the NFL -- announced a new youth helmet-replacement program in the country's "under-served communities." Proponents said they hoped to give out 13,000 new helmets this year. "Have we fielded more calls" from people concerned over the NFL's issues and youth football?'' said USA Football spokesman Steve Alic. "We have, we have."

John Griffin, the youth football director for the Woodbury Athletic Association, said one cannot help but follow stories detailing the NFL's problem issues. He said the association, which has 500 kids playing football, only last week voted to buy all new helmets over the next three years at a retail cost of as much as $190 apiece.

"We don't think any of our numbers are going to be overly affected, but we don't know," he said.

Bob Stein, a former Viking, is now a lawyer representing former NFL players who claim the league for years used their likeness without compensation. The lawsuit said the NFL has made millions trading on the league's "glory days" through films and advertising but the players "who created these glory days" went uncompensated and instead were left with lingering injuries.

Stein said what he has seen since his playing days has forever changed his view of the game: "When you see a big hit, there's less of an 'Oh, boy' adrenaline excitement, and more of an 'Oh, God, what's that going to produce 30 years from now?'"

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