NFL Blindsides Toyota -- Today's Outrage

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Concussions as justification for big fines and more league-decreed player restrictions? Fine. Concussions as an impetus for preventative medical technology featured in commercials? Not on the NFL's watch.

The NFL meted out five-figure fines to players for "devastating hits" to the head and neck this season after a memo sent to teams by commissioner Roger Goodell in October stated the league's intention to "protect all players from unnecessary injury caused by dangerous techniques from those who play outside the rules." Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who takes the field against the New York Jets this weekend after spurring the NFL's anti-concussion stance with a helmet-to-helmet on Cleveland Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in October, already has been fined $125,000 for various hits during the regular season.

Toyota ( TM), meanwhile, incurred the NFL's wrath for simply running an ad during ESPN's Monday Night Football touting technology it developed with partners at Wake Forest University that could prevent football-related head injuries.

Because the Saatchi-&-Saatchi-produced ad contained an image of a helmet-to-helmet hit, however, Toyota told Reuters that the NFL complained to broadcast partners CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN, who brought the complaints to Toyota. Those complaints resulted in a quick cut of the offending image.

Toyota's take, according to spokesman Tim Morrion's account to Reuters: "I'm sure if they'd had their druthers, we'd have pulled the spot. We weren't pulling the spot. We couldn't. But we never intended the spot to irritate the NFL."

The NFL's take, according to spokesman Brian McCarthy: "From time to time, we will address an ad that portrays our sport unfairly."

Unfairly? We're talking about the same NFL that, only little more than a year ago, finally changed its rules to remove players from a game or practice after sustaining a concussion and prevent them from returning the same day. We're talking about an NFL that made that change only after the New York Times got a hold of a league-sponsored survey that indicated that N.F.L. retirees were suffering dementia and other memory-related diseases at several times the rate of the average American. We're talking about an NFL that practically had to be shamed into that change by the House Judiciary Committee during a 2009 hearing.

Yes, the same league that waited until a year after all of those changes, a month after four players suffered concussions in Week 1 and after Deadspin counted roughly 46 player concussions by mid-October to make helmet-to-helmet hits punishable by suspension clutches the pearls when an automaker even suggests that such hits could cause brain injury. Considering that the price of a helmet-to-helmet hit went down from $75,000 for Harrison's hit on Massaquoi to $10,000 when Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher hit defenseless Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the head and neck on Christmas Eve, it's hard to say why the NFL's so sensitive about Toyota's take on the situation.

Perhaps it's because that claim isn't coming from the league's official car and passenger truck sponsor GM ( GM), who Nielsen said increased overall ad spending 73% last year and who Kantar Media said was the No. 1 auto advertiser after spending nearly $1.5 billion in 2010. That's almost double what Toyota spent through the first nine months alone.

Maybe the NFL's punishing Toyota for being cheap. GM bought $61.1 million in Super Bowl ads in the last 10 years, no small feat considering that six automotive brands spent $30 million on five and a half minutes of air time last year. Meanwhile, Toyota's noticeably absent from this year's platter of Super Bowl patrons that includes GM, BMW, Chrysler, Daimler, Hyundai and Volkswagen.

More likely, the NFL is getting used to its games being seen by 208 million unique U.S. viewers -- according to Nielsen -- and doesn't want its newfound fans worrying about hits that force players to live from one Post-It note memory to the next for the rest of their lives. Never mind that Toyota's technology would prevent such tragedies from happening, the NFL has to "protect the shield" -- as its commissioner so tritely puts it -- and control the narrative that says helmet-to-helmet hits are history and brain trauma doesn't exist.

If the NFL is going to scream to the networks every time there's even a second and a half of content that connotes anything remotely negative about football, be prepared for lawsuits over television reruns of North Dallas Forty and Any Given Sunday and full-on lawsuits if TBS runs The Replacements while the NFL uses non-union players during next year's lockout. Considering the number of home game blackouts that took place this season and the impending loss of games to a labor dispute next season, perhaps the NFL should concentrate more on shielding its fans from a lost season than from snippets of commercial footage. As for Toyota, it seems unfair that the NFL allowed that company to drill its "Saved By Zero" theme into fans heads during a leasing campaign in 2008 but censors it for trying to protect those fans' heads three years later.

--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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