Two crises for NFL, but experts see no damage to ‘extraordinarily durable’ brand

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, left, and tackle Jonathan Martin look up from the bench in the second half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, on Sept. 30, 2013. Bill Feig / AP file

It’s the bulletproof brand.

The famously image-conscious National Football League is sweating two crises this week — the reported bullying of a Miami Dolphin by a teammate and the admission by one of its legends that apparent traumatic brain injury has led him to consider suicide.

But public relations experts see little danger to the reputation of the country’s most popular sport — flush with billions from new television contracts, unstoppable in the ratings, the talk of talk radio, its teams worth more every year.

“Not in the least bit,” said Aaron Perlut, an expert on sports marketing who has worked for the Miami Heat and the PGA Tour. “The NFL has built an extraordinarily durable brand.”

The NFL was already facing an outcry over the racially controversial name of the Washington Redskins. And a charge of first-degree murder against a star tight end. And accusations from last year that New Orleans Saints were paid bonuses to deliver harder hits.

Then came this week, and the country’s train-wreck fascination with the Dolphins. A guard, Richie Incognito, reportedly bullied a teammate, Jonathan Martin, into such emotional distress that he checked into a hospital.

Incognito is white; Martin is biracial. Incognito’s fellow Dolphins have defended him against what another teammate described as the public perception that he is “a racist, psychopath maniac.”

Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett in 1984. NFL / AP file

The team has suspended Incognito while it investigates whether he used a racial slur in a voicemail hazing tirade against Martin. The NFL on Wednesday appointed a white-shoe lawyer to look into the Dolphins.

“It’s almost impolitic to say it,” said Sean Healy, who runs a corporate communications firm, “but it’s only intensified interest in the sport. To me, it just illustrates how popular an institution this is. And gets people excited once the games start again.”

And the games themselves have never been more popular.

At roughly the halfway mark of the regular season, NFL ratings are up almost 5 percent compared with last year, said Brad Adgate, research director for the marketing company Horizon Media.

Almost 17 million people tune in for an average game. The Sunday afternoon game on Fox and the Sunday night game on NBC are the only programs on television that have averaged 20 million viewers this fall.

One Thursday night in October, a game between two also-rans, the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, beat a college football game on ESPN and the Major League Baseball playoffs.

“You can literally just put anything with the NFL brand behind it and it will win, seemingly no matter what,” Steve Lepore wrote for the blog Awful Announcing, which covers sports television.

The Dallas Cowboys alone are worth $2.3 billion, 10 percent more than last year, according to Forbes magazine. The only team not worth more this year than last is the Kansas City Chiefs, whose 9-0 start should fix that.

The popularity and value have grown despite barrels of ink emptied by sports writers decrying a moral crisis in the NFL, and a recent PBS “Frontline” documentary about head injuries called “League of Denial.”

With the Dolphins scandal at full boil, ESPN reported Wednesday that Tony Dorsett, one of the greatest running backs to play the game, has signs of a degenerative brain condition.

Dorsett, whose career ended in 1988, said that he is prone to depression and outbursts, that his own daughters are scared of him, and that he gets lost when he drives the girls to their volleyball matches.

“I’ve thought about crazy stuff, sort of like, ‘Why do I need to continue going through this?’” he told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program. “I’m too smart of a person, I like to think, but it’s crossed my mind.”

Just before the season started, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million — about what it collects from ESPN for six weeks’ worth of “Monday Night Football” — to settle thousands of player lawsuits over head injuries.

Public relations experts commended Goodell and the NFL players union for taking specific steps to address the crisis, including fortifying helmets, investing $100 million in medical research and helping provide for retired players.

“Football will remain the hard-hitting, physical sport that you love,” Goodell said in an email to NFL fans last month. “And we will continue to be vigilant in seeking ways to make the game better and safer.”

While the game is roaring for now, it could be threatened years later if more parents pull their children out of football programs because of safety concerns, as anecdotal reports suggest they are already doing.

The Institute of Medicine said last week — in a report paid for in part with $75,000 from the NFL — that many young athletes don’t admit when they suffer a head injury, and that there is still not enough data on how to prevent and treat them.

The report found that high school football players are far more likely than college players to suffer concussions.

“It’s no secret that this is a violent sport,” Healy said. “People are just beginning to understand the long-term effects.”

But for the moment, nothing threatens the NFL.

“It tends to almost cause an oversight of the reality of what’s happening,” Perlut said. “Ultimately, the passion that Americans have for their football teams is remarkable.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.