Season Likely Saved, but Injury Suit Plagues NFL

Former Players Claim Helmet-Maker Riddell and League Concealed Information About Concussions

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

The National Football League lockout might be just about over, salvaging a $12 billion ecosystem encompassing everything from TV ad revenue and sponsor activations, canceled fantasy football leagues and websites, empty sports bars and out-of -work stadium personnel. Even so, the touchdown celebration could be muted by a penalty.

There's a fresh public-relations and branding crisis brewing for the league as 75 former NFL players filed suit in Los Angeles on July 20, claiming the NFL and football helmet-maker Riddell knowingly concealed information about the dangers of concussions since the 1920s.

"For decades, defendants have known that multiple blows to the head can lead to long-term brain injury, including memory loss, dementia and depression," the players alleged in an 81-page complaint.

In an email to Advertising Age, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league has "not reviewed the complaint yet but would vigorously contest any claims of this kind." He declined to comment when asked if the concussion lawsuit would have an ongoing effect on the NFL's brand.

"This is one of several ongoing challenges the sport of football faces in the coming years," said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University.

Gene Grabowski, an authority on litigation and crisis management as a senior VP for *Washington, D.C.-based Levick Strategic Communications, said the initial stories about the lawsuit will be "swept away in the euphoria of the lockout being over. People are relieved. Remember, we live in the United States of Entertainment. But long term, this is going to be a problem."

The NFL has had something of a dubious history when it comes to the sensitive issue of concussions, as well as pensions and health-care benefits for its retired players. As recently as January, the league forced Toyota Motor Sales USA to alter a commercial which showed two college players colliding in a helmet-to-helmet hit, and the voiceover of a mother who expresses concern "about my son playing football."

Riddell 360 Helmet

At the insistence of the league, which said it was unfair to single out one sport when it came to concussions, Toyota Motor Corp. revised the spot to eliminate footage of the football hit. The mother's voiceover now says she worries "about my son playing sports." A Toyota spokeswoman told The New York Times that it changed the ad because the league "threatened to curtail or end the carmaker's ability to advertise during games."

Though the league has pledged $1 million to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, and last year issued a warning that brain injuries from concussions "may lead to problems with memory and communication, personality changes, as well as depression and the early onset of dementia," the retired players contend it's too little, too late.

In their lawsuit, the players point to a 1994 NFL-commissioned study on concussions -- with the findings published in 2004 -- in which researchers found "no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects from multiple concussions."

The plaintiffs can also trot out myriad examples of former teammates who have suffered from concussions and other brain damage -- not to mention the tragic examples of former players such as Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Shane Dronett, all of whom were diagnosed with brain damage and committed suicide, and former Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey, who died earlier this month after being diagnosed with dementia.

"This is a story that neither the league nor the [current] players want out there," said Rick Burton, the David Falk Professor of Sports Management at Syracuse University. "It almost falls to the media now to make sure this doesn't get overlooked, to make sure Dave Duerson's death and the deaths of some of the other players isn't swept under the table. Sure, money is being put into the settlement [of the lockout] but this issue can't go away. You're not talking about somebody's bank account here, you're talking about their lives."

"Any time you have a class-action lawsuit, it's a problem for a brand, especially one that is high-profile," said branding expert James Gregory, the CEO of New York-based CoreBrand. "But you start trotting out these former players and former stars, who make good sound bites and good visuals, and it's going to have a big effect on both the NFL and the helmet-maker."

Mr. Gregory said he wasn't concerned about the lawsuit being lost in the euphoria of the lockout being settled.

"These type of things, the damage is not caused by the first wave of publicity," he said. "It's created by wave after wave. There's no way to paint this in a positive picture. It's just an ugly situation. This is going to go on for years."

THE MOM EFFECT

What Everlast is to boxing, that 's what Riddell is to football. The company has been in business since 1929, and in 1939 its innovative football helmet design was good enough for the U.S. government to incorporate into the helmet worn by soldiers. It has been the official helmet of the NFL since 1989.

Whether that grand legacy will be enough to survive current allegations will ultimately be decided in a court of law -- unless it's first decided by the court of Mom.

"The most serious outcry will come from parents of high school students and college athletes," said PR and crisis-management expert Glenn Selig, founder of the Publicity Agency.

Riddell and Schutt are the two biggest players in the $45 million market for helmets and protective equipment, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

Riddell declined to comment, but branding experts say it is less at risk from the outcome of the lawsuit than it would be from a grassroots effort by parents and coaches at levels beneath the pros to change helmets. "Your corporate brand is everything you say and do," said branding expert James Gregory, the CEO of New York-based CoreBrand. " It's bigger than having a product recall."

One encouraging development for Riddell was the landmark 2010 study conducted by Virginia Tech in which researchers rated helmets brand by brand, model by model, for concussion resistance. Three Riddell models -- the Speed, the Revolution and the Revolution IQ -- were given outstanding marks for concussion safety. The bad news? The Riddell VSR4, which received low grades and prompted the researchers to warn against wearing it, was the most-common helmet worn in the NFL last year and is also widely used in colleges and high schools.

Riddell's website already has myriad links to discussions, articles and research about concussions, and also includes a dedicated link for parents and their involvement. And the company still has its supporters, despite the lawsuit.

"We use Riddell and Schutt, and I think Riddell is better," said Sean Keenan, coach of the Millbrook High School football team that won the New York State, Section Nine, Class C championship in 2010. "Whatever the pros use, I figure that 's the best."

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CORRECTION: This story originally stated that Levick Strategic Communications is based in New York. It is based in Washington, D.C.

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