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Analysis - Link between football and CTE won't harm NFL brand

(Reuters) - The National Football League’s acknowledgement that there is a link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) will do little to hurt the allure of the seemingly Teflon-coated organization.

A representative holds a new impact absorbing helmet at the NFL Headquarters in New York December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Some sports industry analysts feel the NFL, which for years had denied any relationship between football-related head trauma and the degenerative brain condition, could benefit as it allows them to move on from their previous stance on CTE.

“I actually think that recognizing a link is actually a helpful pivot for the NFL both in terms of public relations and the future of the game,” Robert Boland, director of the MBA and master’s sports administration program at Ohio University, told Reuters in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

“It gets them out of the denial category and moves them more towards the idea that they are able to operate and work toward a solution.”

NFL senior vice president for health and safety Jeff Miller acknowledged the link on Monday when he was asked during a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee whether a connection has been established between football and disorders such as CTE. [ID:nL2N16N00T]

Several dozen of the game’s top players, including Hall of Famer Junior Seau, were diagnosed with CTE when doctors analyzed their brains after death. Currently, CTE can only be reliably determined postmortem.

While the admission came as a surprise, the fact that there is a connection between American football and CTE was likely not a revelation to passionate fans who watch America’s most popular sport and cheer each bone-crushing hit.

The National Football League has taken steps to try and make the game safer but the issue has not gone away. There were 182 reported concussions last season, a rise of 58 percent over 2014, according to the NFL.

“They have to really incorporate technology as much as possible to make the game safer ... without it affecting the appeal of the violence of the game,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

“If you take that away you lose one of the most exciting parts of the game.”

A high incidence of degenerative brain disease in former players has led thousands of NFL alumni to press for and win a settlement that could cost the league $1 billion.

Dorfman said making the sport safer without losing its appeal could prove to be a challenge for the NFL, but he also felt the league was impervious to controversy.

“So far, nothing they’ve done seems to bother fans,” said Dorfman. “It’s the Teflon sport. No matter what happens ratings go up, attendance goes up, revenue goes up. It seems to be immune to any kind of scandal.”

While Miller’s comments have garnered plenty of attention, one analyst felt the NFL has long recognized the seriousness of head injuries through rule changes designed to limit them as well as the class action concussion settlement.

“The connection between playing football and brain issues has been something that has been discussed for years and the NFL has been taking action to reduce the severity and provide funding to those who have been injured,” said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm Sports Corp, who has worked closely with the NFL.

“The clearest example is the class action suit. ... Whenever you agree to pay out billions of dollars and you don’t have an insurance company that has insured you the money, that’s a statement to seriousness about the issue.”

Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Larry Fine