THE NFL & CONCUSSIONS
BY: BRIAN VILLWOCK
NFL & Concussions
In August of 2013, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than
4,500 retired football players who had accused the league of concealing a link
between traumatic brain injury and professional football.
This settlement comes after many years of research, testimonies by multiple
doctors and researchers, deaths of former football players & denial by the NFL.
Putnam & Poole define conflict as the “Interaction of independent people
who perceive opposition of goals, aims, and values, and who see the other party as
potentially interfering with the realization of these goals. (Putnam & Poole, 1987)”
The NFL was in a conflict with many doctors, researchers and the public/media, as they
were interfering and opposing the league’s goals to entertain and make money.
Defining the type of Conflict
The NFL’s conflict is considered a Interorganizational
Conflict, which involves disputes between two or more
Conflict consists of three “I’s”: Incompatible Goals,
Behaviors & Role of interaction.
The doctors and researchers were attempting to show &
prove the dangerous effects of repeated blows to the head
& severe head trauma, while the NFL continued to deny
the research & facts.
5 Phases of Organizational Conflict
★ Latent Conflict - Grounds for conflict exist because parties are interacting in
interdependent relationships in which compatible goals are possible.
★ Perceived Conflict - One or more parties perceive that their situation is characterized by
incompatibility & interdependence.
★ Felt Conflict - Parties begin to personalize perceived conflict by focusing on the conflict
issues & planning conflict management strategies.
5 Phases of Organizational Conflict Cont’d.
★ Manifest Conflict - Conflict is enacted through
communication. Interaction might involve cycles of
escalation and de-escalation as various strategies are
★ Conflict Aftermath - Conflict episode has both short-term
and long-term effects on the individuals, their relationship,
and the organization.
★ We will examine how each phase played out with the NFL
and their conflict with Concussions...
“A situation where the conditions are ripe for
- During the 1990’s, multiple former and current
NFL players start to see signs of brain
damage and memory loss as a result of
concussions and severe head trauma.
- Many of these high profile players begin to
vocalize their symptoms, concerns and even
begin to retire from the game/league earlier
than traditionally expected.
Also in the 90’s, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue creates the Mild Traumatic Brain
Injury committee, and appoints New York Jets team doctor and rheumatologist Dr.
Elliot Pellman as chair, despite lacking any previous experience in brain science.
When asked about the issue of concussions, Pellman said, “‘We discuss it on the list of
things every time we have a league meeting … We think the issue of knees, of drugs
and steroids and drinking is a far greater problem, according to the number of
- In the early 2000’s, multiple former NFL players begin to
show more extreme symptoms of brain damage, memory
loss and other stronger symptoms. A handful of these
former players begin to lash out and cause harm to
themselves and their families. A few former players begin
to die and/or commit suicide.
- After his death, Allegheny County medical examiner Dr.
Bennet Omalu decides to take a closer look at Mike
Webster’s brain, eventually discovering the first evidence
of a brain disease that had never been previously
identified in football players, Chronic Traumatic
Encephalopathy, or CTE.
Felt Conflict Continued
- Still in the early 2000’s, Dr. Bennet Omalu begins
examining several more former players brains who had
reported symptoms consistent with Mike Webster’s
before their deaths.
- Dr. Omalu publishes his findings of chronic traumatic
encephalopathy (CTE) in Mike Webster’s brain in the
- Neurology & Pathology doctor & professor Dr. Ann
McKee examines and performs research on multiple
former football players brains who reported symptoms
associated with CTE before their death. The players
ages varied from late 80’s to an 18 year old high school
Felt Conflict Continued
- MTBI Committee, Dr. Joseph Maroon, tells the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette that Omalu’s conclusion that Terry Long’s
suicide may have been the result of depression caused by
head injuries during his career in football was “fallacious
- The NFL’s MTBI committee requests that Neurosurgery
Journal retract Dr. Omalu’s CTE paper. They continue to
deny the effects of concussions and head trauma.
- In 2009, Scientists crash and host a press conference at the
Super Bowl & then speak in front of a House Judiciary
Hearing regarding CTE.
- In December of 2009, an NFL Spokesman finally
acknowledges the long term effects of concussions.
This is the very first time the league admits that
concussions had long-term effects.
- NFL announces a $30 million donation to the National
Institutes of Health for research into brain trauma.
- The NFL announces it’s funded Heads Up Football, a
new USA Football initiative to promote safety and
concussion awareness in youth football.
- In 2013, The NFL agrees to pay $765 million to settle
the lawsuit with retired players.
- The NFL produces a poster to be hung in locker rooms
warning that concussions “may lead to problems with
memory and communication, personality changes, as well
as depression and the early onset of dementia.
Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain
injury can change your life and your family’s life forever.”
- The NFL moves up kick-offs by five yards to the 35-yard line
in hopes of reducing the speed of collisions during kickoff.
- The NFL announces it’s funded Heads Up Football, a new
USA Football initiative to promote safety and concussion
awareness in youth football.
Conflict Aftermath Continued
- In addition to donating $1 million towards their research
efforts, the NFL writes a letter stating they will make Dr.
McKee’s Center for the Study of Traumatic
Encephalopathy at Boston University the “‘preferred’
brain bank of the NFL” for future research on the brains
of deceased NFL players.
- NFL Players Association announces it will fund a $100
million Harvard Medical School research initiative into the
health problems that affect current and former football
- The NFL announces that an independent neurologist will
be placed on the sidelines of every game.
Conflict Aftermath Continued
- The league releases a video explaining new
NFL playing rules. Included is a ban on
“crown of the helmet” hits outside of the
tackle box – designed to reduce high impact
hits to the head.
- Dr. Ann McKee, Dr. Omalu and other
scientists continue to study CTE in former
athletes. McKee tells FRONTLINE she’s
found CTE in the brains of 45 of the 46
former NFL players she’s examined.
- Initially, the NFL stuck to the conflict management
style of avoidance. They denied the facts and
scientific evidence presented by Doctor Omalu,
Doctor McKee & numerous others, claiming that
their findings were incorrect and there were no
dangers or health concerns associated with
- As our textbook states, avoidance is used when
issue will not be easy to resolve. In avoidance, the
party or individual shows little concern for either
your own needs or the other party.
- As the NFL found out, this strategy is rarely
- This is the most ideal conflict management strategy. In this strategy, there is
high concern for both self and others.
- When collaborating, the idea is to reach a solution that could benefit both
- Once the NFL had no choice but to acknowledge the facts and scientific
findings from the numerous doctors who did research on former players
brains, their best option was to try to collaborate with the former players who
brought the class action case before them. This lead to bargaining and
Bargaining & Negotiation
- According to Putnam & Poole, “bargaining constitutes a unique form of conflict
management in that participants negotiate mutually shared rules and then cooperate
within these rules to gain a competitive advantage over their opponent… Bargaining,
then, differs from other forms of conflict in its emphasis on proposal exchanges as a
basis for reaching a joint settlement in cooperative-competitive situations.”
- The NFL and the former players formally met and negotiated the terms of their
settlement, in which both sides were looking for an advantage. The players benefited
from the large payout from the NFL, and the NFL benefited by not having to admit any
This is an example of distributive bargaining, because…
- “The two conflicting parties are working to maximize their
own gains and minimize their own losses. The bargaining
centers on the limited resources that must be divided in the
- Because both sides are working with a fixed pot & the only
possible outcomes are win-lose solutions or compromise.
- Both sides were concerned with their own outcomes,
communication is marked by withheld information,
deception (mainly by the NFL) & attempts to learn as much
as possible about the other party's position.
Breslow, Jason M. (2013, August 29) NFL Reaches $765 Million Settlement In Concussion Lawsuit.
Frontline. Retrieved from www.pbs.org.
Ezell, Lauren (2013, October 8) Timeline: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Frontline. Retrieved from
Miller, Katherine. Organizational Communication. Approaches and Processes. 6th ed. 2012. Boston, MA.
Putnam, L.L. & Poole, M.S. (1987) Conflict and negotiation. Handbook of Organizational Communication:
An Interdisciplinary Perspective (pp. 549-599) Newbury Park, CA. Sage Publishing.