NFL prepares for legal battle ahead of blockbuster movie

Roger Goodell at Super Bowl 43. (credit: Staff Sgt. Bradley Lail) Roger Goodell at Super Bowl 43. (credit: Staff Sgt. Bradley Lail)

The NFL just recorded its first arrest-free month during the season for the first time in over a decade. Since the players aren’t getting themselves into trouble, maybe now would be a good time to change our focus to the shortcomings of the league itself.

Recently the NFL has been on the lobbying trail, preemptively fighting legislation that may come in reaction to Concussion, the Will Smith movie set to be released in November.

The movie is set to revolve around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition. The Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University jointly conducted a study of 91 deceased NFL players that found 96 percent of their brains showed evidence of CTE.

Player safety has been a mounting concern for the NFL in recent years, and a big-budget movie could bring the controversy to a head. The NFL has been taking shots from Congress and many others recently, from the controversial name of the NFL franchise in Washington D.C., the Redskins, to repeated instances of domestic violence perpetrated by players followed by wholly inadequate responses from the league.The league will be in very deep trouble, however, if lawmakers decide to go after the game the NFL plays.

The NFL’s response to concussions has basically been to try and eliminate the scariest moments on the field: when a player goes down after a huge hit and doesn’t get back up. Those moments are incredibly uncomfortable to watch on TV and are obvious reminders of the dangers of football. For both reasons, the NFL has incentive to reduce their frequency.

However, research says brain injuries in football — especially CTE — are not all-at-once events, usually coming as the result of a lifetime of blows to the head. The helmet-to-helmet hit bans and bans against hitting a defenseless receiver in football do not prevent this buildup of small moments of trauma.

If Congress takes notice of the NFL’s failed response to head injuries, two things can happen: The first is that Congress can try to legislate meaningful reforms into football. This means shorter and fewer practices, possibly the elimination of the kickoff and punt, and other things Congress can try to think up.

Secondly, Congress can target the NFL’s wallet. Congress has serious sway over the finances of the NFL. Two legal distinctions of the NFL — its not-for-profit status and the antitrust exemption that allows its franchises to work in lockstep — are what make the NFL a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Being treated as a for-profit or having its franchises broken up so that the financial rules are different for each team could seriously damage the NFL’s brand and, more importantly, its wallet.

The NFL knows that this fight is coming and has prepared accordingly. The league has a full time lobbying apparatus on the ground in Washington already at work. They’re spitting out all the old “this is all sensationalism and the media is a bunch of liars, and we’re angels” sound bytes we always hear every time someone tries to brush an epidemic of degenerative brain disease among employees under the rug.
With Will Smith and his movie shining extra light on the struggles of former NFL players, the NFL better find a way to stop the bleeding. This bit of good news, that no players have committed crimes for a calendar month, is legitimately good news. It’s somewhat hard to find 1700 people who go an entire month committing a total of zero crimes. However, while we give the players a gold star, it is best not to remember the “F” we have to give the league under the stewardship of commissioner Roger Goodell.

If concussions continue to be a problem and the league just says it cannot find any possible solution, a blockbuster movie-driven Congress might not stop at practice schedules. Without its nonprofit distinction, the NFL will be fine. It relinquished its tax-exempt status in April in what many people believe was an attempt to be more secretive about executive pay.

However, if it loses its antitrust exemption, the large amount of money in football means that the competitive balance in the league could be uniformly damaged if the financial rules become lopsided, leading to the destruction of football as we currently know it.