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Featured Study – Media Framing and Football Injuries: An Opportunity to Shift the Narrative

2014 June 11

By Dr. Jimmy Sanderson

I am sure many of us remember when the now infamous 2011 NFC Championship game between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler received significant criticism for not finishing the game after sustaining a knee injury.

Many of us also probably remember watching Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III during a 2013 playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks continuing to play after sustaining a knee injury before being removed from the game.

For me, my colleague Dr. Melinda Weathers, and a team of undergraduate students in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University, these two incidents provided a compelling opportunity to examine how the print media talked about players’ injury decisions.

On a surface level, it appeared that Cutler was widely criticized for not finishing the game, particularly by his peers, while Griffin was praised as a warrior.

In the study we conducted, we examined 177 news articles that reported on these two incidents to see how these two quarterbacks were framed by the media.

Not surprisingly, Cutler was portrayed as a sissy, the severity of his injury was questioned, and he was blamed for it. However, what was interesting is that many more articles shifted the blame away from Cutler to other people in the Bears organization, and – one of the key findings for us – was that there was significant support for Cutler for not returning to the game.

With Griffin III, only a small portion of the reports assigned any responsibility to him. Rather, the blame was shifted to Coach Mike Shanahan and other Redskins officials, including team doctors, and the severity of his injury was emphasized. Griffin was also positioned as hero for his resiliency in fighting through injury that – and another key finding here – was part of the game.

Our results are not exhaustive and much more work needs to be done. However, they do offer a starting point for conversations about the role the media can play in the way we talk about injuries in football and there were a couple of key takeaways for us in this research.

First, it was surprising to see significant support for Cutler, especially given how much criticism he received from his peers. The press can play a role in shifting attitudes about health issues – and when we consider how many kids participate in football – injuries in football are a public health issue – we wonder if the press begins to praise players who do not continue to play through injuries and put their health first, if that might have a trickle down effect?

Second, while there was evidence of shifting narratives about playing through pain, there was still the notion that playing through injuries, regardless of the long-term consequences, is privileged. For example, one report about Griffin noted that, “In the macho world of the NFL this earns much street cred.”

One of the issues with health and safety in sports, but particularly football, is that the culture is at present, incompatible with players advocating for their health. Speaking up for oneself is often seen as “unmanly” and this norm perpetuates through all levels of football to predispose players to not seek attention, even when their own well-being is at stake.

Equating manliness with playing through pain, no matter the cost, has too long gone unquestioned and the press may begin to sow the seeds for a culture change by doing so.

Can a player still be “tough” and put their health first? That is the big question facing the culture of football.

Dr. Jimmy Sanderson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University. His research centers on the influence of social media and sports with particular emphases on sports media, sports organizations, and communicate between athletes and fans and he is beginning research on concussion and health issues in sports. His work has appeared in multiple academic journals and he also is the author of It’s a Whole New Ballgame: How Social Media is Changing Sports published by Hampton Press. Connect with him on Twitter @Jimmy_Sanderson

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