NEW YORK (July 28, 1:30 p.m. ET) — The National Football League lockout might be over, but 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 Sports Inc. 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 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.”
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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