The NFL is making pretty posters- but what are they doing to change the CULTURE of playing with head injuries?

Hot off the presses! Check out the new poster produced by the NFL which now hangs in every locker room in the National Football League. This poster represents a new effort within the sport to educate and protect its players from head injuries. However, I would argue that these strategies (and the others that I will outline) will not do anything to help the problem until a culture shift begins on the player level.
I was inspired to write this blog post after reading an editorial by Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post (thanks to my husband for making me a PTI fan). Mr. Wilbon compares these posters to the Surgeon General's warning that appears on each cigarette package. I completely agree- and they will be just as ineffective. Straight education and "fear-based" messages are not capable of changing behavior.

My first concern is regarding the layout and content of the poster itself. In any good health communication piece, you want the target audience to quickly and easily understand what you are trying to say and what you hope they will do after viewing the piece (i.e., what is the "call to action?"). The NFL poster fails in multiple areas:

1. It is not quick: It took me almost 5 minutes to read it thoroughly.
2. There are too many goals/calls to action (at least three by my count): 1- Education about the facts and symptoms of concussions; 2- How/why to refer yourself; 3- How/why to refer a teammate.
3. It uses some "fear-based" messages (e.g., head injuries can cause early onset dementia).

I highly doubt that this poster was tested with the target population (NFL players)- which is always the best way to produce effective health communication materials. Perhaps the players would have pointed out the obvious oversight that the photographs on the poster are not NFL players (but instead children and those playing other sports).

The posters are being rolled out in conjunction with other prevention strategies. For example, there have been policy changes (either under consideration or already active) regarding how quickly a player can come back after a concussion, how much contact/hitting can take place in practice, etc. They are also reviewing new data regarding the safety of different types of helmets and supporting a coaches committee dedicated to the discussion of player safety.

But what about the players themselves? Are they ready to sit out games? Will they support their teammates sitting out games? From many stories heard from the fields and locker rooms- players have not yet bought into this "new system". For example:

Last November (2009), Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers sustained yet another concussion. It was ultimately decided (by his physicians) that he could not play in a key game versus the Baltimore Ravens. The result- he did not receive support from his teammates. Hines Ward told the media that support in the locker room was "50-50" regarding if Ben should play. He talks about how other players have played (and would have played) through a concussion. He also discussed how they would lie to physicians in order to be cleared for play.

So while it is great to have committees and make posters, until the players are on board and feel supported by their teammates to put their health first (without consequence or retribution), these other measures will not truly be effective. A culture change must come first- and it must start with the players.


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