The National Football League’s release of actuarial estimates on long-term cognitive impairment among its players is a real defining moment.
This one hits close to home for me.
Those who know me know that I grew up playing (American) football. I played through the collegiate ranks and had a brief taste of the most elite level as a lineman in the NFL. I understand implicitly the difference in intensity that exists in the game between the high school, college, and professional ranks–they are, to me, orders of magnitude different. If the average intensity of a high school game in a competitive league is a 10, then the NFL is 1000. No kidding.
This week, the National Football League released actuarial documents that show that its players are likely to develop significant cognitive problems far more frequently and at younger ages than the surrounding population. This article in the New York Times summarizes it nicely. 28 percent of the player population will develop “compensable injuries.” That’s right–nearly a third. What is more striking is the comparison of rates of disease. From the article:
“[Actuaries’] calculations showed that players younger than 50 had an 0.8 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. For players ages 50 to 54, the rate was 1.4 percent, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. The gap between the players and the general population grows wider with increasing age.”
Let’s be clear: That’s more than ten times the base rate of illness…with nearly a third of the player population likely to be affected. These are big, stark numbers that rise above the noise. Which brings me to my question: What is an ethical business leader to do when it is revealed that his or her product, which is creating social value for so many, is with statistical certainty destroying some of the lives involved in creating it?
We have what appears to be the NFL’s formula for action:
Step 1: Deny the link and glorify the at-risk population as “warriors for the cause.” Convince the warriors that they are part of something bigger in the moment. Argue that the already-affected stakeholders were compensated for the risk they took under contract.
Step 2: Isolate and make anecdotal the really egregious and sad cases (if you have free time, do an internet search for “Mike Webster Pittsburgh Steelers” on this topic). Make changes to working conditions and work rules to limit future injury (but without stating a link). Hand out pamphlets. “Study the problem.”
Step 3: Assess the litigation impact. Offer settlement. Release the actuarial data on a Friday. Get ready for Sunday’s games.
Is there a better way?
Perhaps, but the answer depends on where the affected stakeholders are in a business’ grand strategy. Sure, an organization can state that worker (or player, in the NFL’s instance) safety is a core value; but defining moments of a strategy occur when core values are in conflict.
Defining moments are when you, as a leader, have to choose between two “priorities.”
So far, the NFL appears to have chosen the “product” as its highest priority. If the product on the field is actually the result of a veritable meat grinder for the men playing it, then that’s what it takes. This is a rational, economically sound near term decision.
However, as its spectators and consumers start to see that they are cheering on the demolition of men’s minds to the tune of 7 out of the 22 men they are watching on the field, the NFL will face its next defining moment. That defining moment will be a choice between a quick profit strategy of cashing in on the remaining, dwindling fan and player base (boxing comes to mind as an analogy) versus a sustainable profit strategy that ameliorates the cause of stakeholder dissatisfaction–restructuring the game, equipment, and rules.
The NFL depends not only on its fans, but also on its product lifeblood in terms of a relatively diverse pipeline of player sources. As words gets out, both groups have higher potential to walk away–one could argue it is already happening at the margin. This is particularly true in the player source case, as the major feeders of talent to the NFL are colleges and universities who have no interest in propagating explicitly debilitating sports. In practical terms, the NFL should be going through a painful reordering of its hierarchy of core values (including product, health, sustainability, reputation, social value, etc.). The old hierarchy is obsolete over the intermediate term.
I’m not very old, but I grew up during the time when a guy getting concussed on the football field was kind of amusing–scary, yes, but not a life altering moment. Times have changed. The NFL has to change as well.
I’m not a lawyer and have no personal stake in the outcome of NFL litigation. This article is merely a reflection on the business implications of the NFL’s predicament. All errors as to action or timeline are my own.