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NFL re-invented itself as leader in concussion research

Strong safety David Bruton #30 of the Denver Broncos lies on the ground in pain after a play that would force him out of the game with a reported concussion during a game against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 28, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The NFL’s initial response to player concussions in the 1990s—avoidance and superficial gestures to mollify critics—damaged its public image. Now, it has repositioned itself as a leader in concussion prevention and research.

The league’s newly proactive stance shows how a large organization can wrest control of and shape the very issue that haunted it, a new study suggests.

“They said, ‘We’ll change, but it’s going to be on our terms, we want to be the leaders in concussion,'” says author Kathryn Heinze, assistant professor in kinesiology at the University of Michigan.

“When they finally realized they had to do something they realized they had to be the leaders.”

“They said, ‘If we have to change, we’ll take credit. We’ll create the funding, we’ll create the partnerships with other organizations, we’ll work to pass new laws.’ When they finally realized they had to do something they realized they had to be the leaders.”

The NFL is likely one of the few organizations that could achieve this, largely because it’s so influential, Heinze says. But, it would have been better off implementing the changes years earlier.

“There’s a lesson here around getting ahead of these changes sooner and avoiding the intermediate stages where organizations resist or avoid change,” Heinze says. “They may have avoided some of those lawsuits, or the Judiciary hearings on concussion, yet we still see this path very often.”

The study’s purpose wasn’t to judge the NFL’s handling of concussion, but rather to look at how one organization reacted to demands for institutional change.

The findings in no way suggest that the NFL has done all it can to protect players from concussion, Heinze says, only that it has now adopted a leadership role in addressing the problem.

For the study in the Journal of Sport Management researchers looked at the NFL’s response to concussion from the early 1990s to 2015.

From the 1990s to 2008, the NFL either dismissed concussion as a non-issue or made superficial gestures that didn’t yield substantial change, a strategy called decoupling. Later the league made significant but incremental changes that didn’t yield fundamental shifts.

For instance, in 1994 the league created a concussion study committee, but most members were affiliated with the league and weren’t concussion experts. Later, it appointed an independent director, but 10 of the 14 members remained tied to the league in some way.

It was a surprise how dramatically an organization’s position can shift in a relatively short time.

However, from 2009 to 2015, the league responded to intense, coercive internal and external pressure by making fundamental organizational shifts. For instance, it abolished the existing, much-criticized concussion committee and established the Head, Neck and Spine committee, which consisted only of concussion experts unaffiliated with the NFL.

More importantly, the league changed its ideology and also engaged in advocacy, which enabled it to shape the agenda regarding the concussion issue. It also finally acknowledged the long-term effects of concussion; and served as a broker, forming partnerships with academia, government, and business.

Further, it was instrumental in passing a law in 50 states to protect youth athletes who experience concussion; only four states passed this law prior to NFL involvement.

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It was a surprise how dramatically an organization’s position can shift in a relatively short time, Heinze says.

“I know it took a while, but once they decided to go in that direction, they attacked it from multiple perspectives.”

Whether other large organizations model the NFL and take a leadership role on controversial issues remains to be seen, Heinze says. The NFL’s initial response of denial and avoidance is much more typical.

Source: University of Michigan