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The NFL's 'Player Safety' Super Bowl Commercial, And Why You Probably Shouldn't Buy It

On Sunday, the NFL will air a 60-second commercial dedicated to player safety. Will the League acknowledge its past transgressions, or simply treat us to revisionist history? The answer will determine whether this gesture is worth anything at all.

During this year's Super Bowl, the NFL will be allotted 150 seconds of commercial time to advertise its own products. The league is spending 60 of those seconds on a commercial that demonstrates how player safety has evolved over the years. From the New York Times:

Only the most devoted fan would recognize all the references. The flying wedge, a blocking technique that is believed to have made its debut in 1892 but was banned soon after, is shown briefly in the opening seconds. Near the end, a horse-collar tackle, only recently forbidden, is featured.

The as-yet-unreleased ad, which will present the NFL's evolution through a long kickoff return, sounds like it's going to be visually impressive. It honestly (I think) expresses the League's commitment to the safety of its players. The problem: from what we know of the ad, it sounds an awful lot like the NFL will be patting itself on the back.

Let's begin with that flying wedge. If you look up its Wikipedia entry, you have to scroll through photos of Marines and military police before you finally get to the section that says, "oh yeah, and they used it in football for a while too." Players died thanks to tactics such as the flying wedge, to the point at which President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to outlaw football altogether.

Beginning this commercial with the flying wedge is fine for dramatic effect, yes, but given that it was developed, employed, and banned well before the NFL's inception, I don't see it as germane to the modern NFL player safety conversation ... unless the League really is prepared to dramatically alter the nature of football for safety's sake, just as it was altered a century ago.

And maybe so. Over the last couple of years, the NFL has taken actual, not-bullshit measures to encourage the well-being of all players, and not just the ones who sell Starline posters. It's difficult, though, to issue any measure of credit to the NFL's history on the matter after reading the details of a lawsuit filed by 21 former players in December:

According to the lawsuit, after numerous studies on the risks of concussions, the N.F.L. created a committee of researchers and doctors in 1994 to study the issue.

[...] When the committee published its findings in 2003, it stated that "there was no long term negative health consequence associated with concussions," according to the complaint.

(As far as I've been able to find, the NFL has not publicly disputed the lawsuit on the grounds of any particular allegations, but rather on the grounds that conditions of the collective bargaining agreement should prevent this lawsuit from proceeding in the first place. As a reader points out, it's normal for the NFL to dispute the entire suit on procedural grounds before disputing any specific points.)

One would assume that if the NFL was really interested in getting to the truth of the matter, the league would have formed a committee of neurologists. But amazingly enough, according to the lawsuit, not a single member of the committee specialized in neurology.

This is the year 2003 we're talking about, mind you. Plenty was yet to be understood about neurology in 2003, as is the case today, but the medical community had already established decades of research indicating that concussions do, in fact, present long-term effects. I'm not the first to make this comparison, but I can't read that passage of the lawsuit and not think of the seven Big Tobacco CEOs who insisted that cigarettes weren't addictive, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Over the last few years, concern over concussions in the NFL has hit a fever pitch. The League had to be nudged into looking out for the well-being of its players. That is not something to take pride in.

I understand that once an organization of human beings grows large and powerful enough, no matter whose head pokes out at the top, it begins to shed its human qualities and resemble a natural weather phenomenon more than anything else: morally inert, its movements governed by barometric pressure. In that regard, the NFL's past indifference toward its concussion epidemic is not surprising.

It is, however, unacceptable. I do believe that the NFL is making player safety a priority -- in the year 2012. The same cannot be said of the League throughout the majority of its history, and if this commercial insinuates otherwise, the League is still lying.

We'll have to wait until the third quarter on Sunday to find out whether these 60 seconds will be used to own up to transgressions and make an honest step forward, or whether they will be spent to prop up the myth that player safety has been an overruling priority for the league throughout its history. If the latter comes to pass -- and, unfortunately, I suspect it will -- we should know that we're watching revisionist history, and be thankful only that the clouds are finally breaking apart.