BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’re devoting this holiday weekend show to an American tradition of unsurpassed symbolic and emotional resonance, one that showcases the best and, arguably, the worst, in the life of the nation – sports! They break racial barriers, while enforcing racial stereotypes. They venerate the power of the human spirit, while displaying the sovereignty of accumulated cash. They extol the virtue of perfect bodies, while participating in their devastation.
BOB COSTAS: I’ve always had, going back to the nineties, problems with the fundamental viciousness of the game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: NBC’s Bob Costas is speaking of football on the Hang Up and Listen podcast.
BOB COSTAS: And it isn’t just the contact and the violence. There is a blood lust. Is it true of everyone in the game? Of course not. But it’s true enough of a large enough strain within the game that reasonable people are to be concerned about it. And too much of the media doesn’t just gloss it over; they’d rather just get onto the next thing and glorify it and run the commercial.
BOB GARFIELD: Back in 2011, former Chicago Bears defense back Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest - to preserve his brain for study. He was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease that has been linked to many sports, especially football.
Currently, a class action suit by more than 4,000 football players against the National Football League is in the process of being settled. The players claim that the League covered up a link between football and brain damage. The pressure is on the NFL to better protect its players. I talked with the NFL’s chief marketing officer last year, when the NFL was defending itself, in part, by running public service announcements during games. This one features Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and now retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
ACTRESS/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/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.
TOM BRADY: Cute kid.
BOB GARFIELD: When I spoke to Mark Waller last year, I asked him about the Ray Lewis and Tom Brady PSA, which struck me as oddly whimsical.
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 [DEEP-VOICED] “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: [LAUGHS] 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.