Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a chronic issue for the National Football League (NFL) that frequently becomes a crisis risk or a reputational crisis when public concern over the disease escalates. CTE moved toward crisis when the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a study of 202 brains from donors that had been exposed to American football. The headlines in the traditional and digital media highlighted that 99% of the former NFL players in the study had CTE. Moreover, the study found that the more a person played football, the greater the likelihood of severe CTE pathology. The headlines featured the risk—playing in the NFL leads to severe CTE. Such headlines hold the potential to create a crisis for the NFL because people might begin to link the game to a horrible disease. The media coverage made CTE a paracrisis—a crisis risk that is managed in full view of the stakeholders.
The NFL response can be described as restrained. Until 2016, the NFL had been a denier of CTE. If the risk did not exist, the NFL did not have a problem and did not have to pay players affected by the disease. But in 2016 the NFL acknowledged a link between football and CTE. The NFL response to the recent AMA article praised the work being done to improve the understanding of CTE and how this information can help current and former NFL players. But there was this qualifying statement: “As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE.” The NFL was politely saying “do not read too much into the results.”
The NFL is right to recognize the limitation of the study. The brain donations were voluntary and represented a convenience sample (not a random sample) that could be biased. Currently, the only way to properly diagnose CTE is a post-mortem examination of the brain. The study noted: “Therefore, caution must be used in interpreting the high frequency of CTE in this sample, and estimates of prevalence cannot be concluded or implied from this sample.”
Second, the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is not representative of the overall population of former players of American football. I use the terms “restrained” and “polite” because the NFL could have attacked the headlines that hyped the findings of “99% in NFL players” but instead choose to say there were unanswered questions. Nor did the NFL attack the study for its sample. The NFL was again accepting the link between football and CTE but noted the exact nature of that link was still unclear. The NFL response fit with the sample and the actual limitations of the study. I would argue the NFL provided an effective response to this paracrisis.
That prior discussion of sampling makes sense to people who know research methods, but most people probably would not appreciate or care about the finer points of research. Most people will probably just accept the 99% claim and not read or appreciate the limitations of the study. The NFL was wise in crafting the general reply and focusing on the need to know more. People can appreciate “unanswered questions” more than “sampling”. The NFL response appears supportive of the study rather than hostile towards it. If the NFL had taken an aggressive response, the study would have received even more attention. The conflict would enhance the news value and keep the crisis risk alive for a longer period of time in the media. By accepting the study, and its limitations, the NFL provides no conflict nor the potential to be cast as the villain in the conflict.
CTE will continue to be a chronic issue for the NFL that will rise in both attention and crisis potential for the foreseeable future. The NFL is deciding how to live with this chronic issue and frequent crisis risk.
The strategy seems to be to accept CTE as a part of game. Everyone involved will know CTE is a risk and that is perhaps the price of playing in the NFL. Players still seem willing to accept the risk/reward for CTE and the fans appetite for the NFL has not changed. Many parents will decide not to let their children play football and some fans may stop watching because of CTE. There is no clear data but it would appear those two actions will be a small minority of the potential players and fans for the NFL.
For the NFL, the CTE issue is more about legal liability and what the NFL will pay for it. The NFL began moving toward paying for CTE when it accepted its link with football in 2016. Rough estimates have CTE costing the NFL millions. But in 2016, the NFL recorded revenues of over 13 billion dollars. The NFL can afford to pay for its CTE liabilities. What the NFL cannot afford is a crisis that drives fans from the game.
Thus far, CTE has not proven to be a fan repellent. CTE will continue to be an issue and occasionally a crisis risk for the NFL but it has yet to demonstrate the potential to inflict serious damage on the league. It could be argued the problems of domestic abuse by players is a far more damaging crisis risk than CTE.
CTE is a horrible disease that inflicts great pain on its victims and their families. For the NFL, it is an issue and a crisis risk but not a major crisis. The NFL’s response to the JAMA article on the CTE study (the paracrisis) fit the situation. The response continued the NFL’s acceptance of the link between football and the NFL did nothing to extend the media discussion of the study. The NFL may have found its method of dealing with the chronic issue of CTE—acknowledge the problem and consider CTE part of the price for American football.
The NFL’s dealing with CTE and domestic abuse are examples of the rising concern for crisis communication in the sports industry. A reflection of that concerns is the Summit on Reputational Sports Challenges, held on August 8th at DePaul University, co-sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and the Alabama Program in Sports Communication. Crisis will be a major focus of this meeting and a core element of the book inspired by the research presented. This project is being led Andrew Billings, a preeminent scholar in sports communication.
Timothy Coombs, Ph.D., is a crisis communication specialist for the Institute for Public Relations and a professor at Texas A&M University. Follow him on Twitter @wtcoombs and on his blog, “Crisis Communication: Commentary on Contemporary Crises.”