BOB GARFIELD: Last Saturday, Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself. Sports website Deadspin reported that one of Belcher's friends thought the athlete may have been unhinged by the concussions he sustained in his young NFL career. Chiefs Chairman Clark Hunt said that Belcher, quote, “had not had a long concussion history.” But the fact that Belcher’s violent behavior is being viewed through that lens is no surprise. In the past two years, six other former NFL players have killed themselves. In each case, many argued that depression and dementia, brought on by job-related concussions, were to blame. The pressure is on the NFL to better protect its players, and the League is defending itself in part by running public service announcements during games. This one features Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
ACTRESS PLAYING MRS LEWIS: Oh, hi Tom.
TOM BRADY: Hey.
MRS. LEWIS: My little boy loves playing football.
TOM BRADY: It’s a great game.
MRS. LEWIS: But what has the NFL done to make the game safer?
TOM BRADY: We’re doing a lot. Carl?
CARL JOHNSON: Well, Tom, we’re developing new rules to better protect our players.
ACTOR PLAYING LAB DOC: And over the next decade, with the NFL Players' Union, they're dedicating more than $100 million for medical research.
MRS. LEWIS: Wow.
LAB PHYSICIAN: As well as supporting the development of better and safer equipment.
MRS. LEWIS: Then I feel a lot better about him playing.
TOM BRADY: Love to meet the little guy.
MRS. LEWIS: Ray, meet Tom.
[RAY GLARES/SOUND OF SLURPING DRINK THRU STRAW]
TOM BRADY: Cute kid.
BOB GARFIELD: The question is what are we to make of the enlightened talk when every Sunday players of unprecedented speed and strength bang heads at immense risk to themselves? Mark Waller is the NFL’s chief marketing officer. Mark, welcome to OTM.
MARK WALLER: Thank you, Bob. Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the Ray Lewis and Tom Brady PSA. It gets to the importance of understanding the safest way to play football, but it does so in a kind of almost whimsical tone that seems little discordant.
MARK WALLER: It's a tone that really works for getting people's attention, and they listen. So it's a very effective style that actually has people very focused on the messaging.
BOB GARFIELD: I, myself, have over the decades spent – the women in my life would say squandered - thousands and thousands [LAUGHS] of hours watching NFL games. It is appointment TV for me. I am a big fan of my team, the Philadelphia Eagles, disappointing though they may be. But I am truly a conflicted man. It's so dangerous now and the collisions are so violent, I worry that they are gladiators, and then I feel guilt for being an enabler.
MARK WALLER: That's a very natural human reaction, which is why we, I think, are taking the steps to make sure that people are clearly and transparently aware of it. The athletes that you watch now on TV, those athletes started off as young children and they were taught and educated to play the game in a specific way, and I think as human physicality has evolved, so we need to do more to evolve how the game is taught, how it's played and ultimately what rules it’s played under.
BOB GARFIELD: In no way am I suggesting that there is a parallel between the NFL and the tobacco industry, but the body language of the campaign, and not just the body language but actually the explicit language [LAUGHS], so reminds me of the approach the tobacco industry took when it was trying to distract all of the world from the insidiousness of their business.
MARK WALLER: It’s a flawed comparison because you’re comparing the latter phases of the tobacco industry with the start of ours. Our body language is nothing like when those guys stood up in Congress. We’ve taken this issue on transparently, publicly and full on, working really hard on the research side to understand more about the issues and ultimately give all parents, all children, all athletes the right information and as much information as possible for them to be able to make an educated decision about whether they should play the game or whether they would watch the game.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you gotten any pushback from traditionalists who think that the rules protecting the quarterback and prohibiting chop blocks and spearing and all of the other safety- oriented rules changes make them think less of the game, that, you know, they wish it was just “men in the trenches doing what men do” and that sort of mentality?
MARK WALLER: Less about that focus. There is concern from fans that if the game changes radically, it won’t be the game that they love. They want the game to continue being as exciting as it is.
BOB GARFIELD: Considering the trajectory, what we’re learning about head injuries and the rules changes, is radical change in the NFL's future?
MARK WALLER: I think radical change is in everybody’s future. It would almost be an anachronism to be anchored in the past while the world changes around you.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, just protect Vic. That’s all I care about, ‘cause he has no offensive line.
MARK WALLER: He needs to protect himself.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thank you so much.
MARK WALLER: Thank you very much indeed, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Waller is the chief marketing officer for the National Football League.