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What happened to the NFL’s concussion crisis?

As the 2014 NFL season begins, the major storyline of 2013 is now a blip on the national radar – the league’s concussion crisis.

The NFL released a report today saying concussions fell by 13% during the 2013 season.  The NFL surely sees this as a significant PR victory and is treating it as evidence of their altruistic push towards player safety.  Of course, informed observers know there are still serious questions that need to be asked of the league and its concussion policies over the years. The NFL didn’t send out press releases in response to the reports that they pushed ESPN out of the PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial last year.  There weren’t proclaiming themselves to be champions for the health of players in the 18 game schedule push, either.

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Over the last twelve months, the issue of concussions in the NFL, and sports as a whole, has seen a major increase in coverage and scrutiny.  Athletes have had audiences with the president.  Investigative reporting into the matter peaked, led by ESPN’s Outside the Lines and PBS’s acclaimed Frontline documentary.  Steps have been taken to improve diagnostic testing and treatment.  But even though there has been an increased awareness regarding concussions, it’s striking to see how the story has dissipated from the mainstream sports media as we await kickoff for Seahawks-Packers.

Regardless of the decline last year, concussions still should be significant storyline for the 2014 NFL season.  However, taking a look at Google search trends over the last year, concussions are at a 12-month low when it comes to their presence in the news cycle.  Especially when it comes to football and the NFL, concussion stories are way, way down from their peak last October and even the early spring.

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There are several reasons why the NFL’s concussion crisis is not the major topic it was during last season.

The league has done what they can to move the subject of concussions from a “crisis” to an issue that is well under their control.  Their reported backroom work to lessen the impact of League of Denial should still be galling to anyone who takes seriously the need to hold the league accountable.  The quick proposed settlement of the concussion lawsuit brought by former players has calmed fears that the league would be sued out of existence.

There are still legal cases on the NFL horizon though, with Junior Seau’s family saying today that they will not take part in the settlement and instead will pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the league.  And yet, you’re a lot more likely to hear stories about Josh Gordon, commentaries about Jim Irsay, and photoshops of Wes Welker today than you are anything about the family of a future Hall of Famer planning a wrongful death suit against the country’s most popular entertainment brand.

Furthermore, the lack of widespread concussion coverage is a natural regression to the mean.  Given there have been few recent major developments on the concussion front, the media is unlikely to keep the story in the front of the minds of sports fans.

To that end, there’s only so much bandwidth that national media organizations have when it comes to their news coverage – even when it comes to the irresistible force that is the NFL.  Much of the media world today in its 24/7 environment exists on not just a flavor of the month, but a flavor of the hour basis.  It’s harder to dig further into the ongoing concussion story when you have to spend so much time on the Ray Rice suspension or the Redskins nickname debate.  In some regard, even though it is very much an ongoing story, concussions are “yesterday’s news.”

How will the story progress in the 2014 season?  If star players suffer head trauma, concussions will find their way into the headlines once again.  If more well-known players opt out of the proposed settlement and bring more suits against the league, it will enter the mainstream once more.  But for now it’s an afterthought on the NFL media landscape.  Now commentators are talking about whether they’ll use the Washington franchise’s nickname, not whether they would let their son play football.  Which discussion do you think the league would prefer having?

The league has taken positive, concrete steps in regards to player safety, yes.  Nevertheless, there is still much more work to be done.  And if there’s one story that should not be going away, it is concussions.  Given it is such a serious health issue with long-lasting affects, no person should be tricked into thinking the NFL’s concussion crisis is over.  Credit outlets like Outside the Lines for continuing to pursue this story even though the national spotlight may be on other stories for the time being.  Continued awareness and understanding, and continued reporting, will be crucial in the years to come… even if our attention is elsewhere.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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