Did NFL adopt Big Tobacco’s smokescreen ploy to deny concussion harms?

NFL-vector-logosThe National Football League may have taken a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, and played fast and loose with data used in “scientific studies” to downplay players’ risks from concussions, a New York Times investigation finds.

The Times scrutinized the underlying information the league and its top officials provided to researchers on five years of its athletes’ concussion-related injuries. This data became the basis for 13 peer-reviewed studies, including research published in the prestigious journal  Neurosurgery, that the league relied on as a public relations shield against mounting evidence that head trauma posed significant short- and long-term harm to players.

But, the newspaper said, the league – which then did not require teams to report such incidents–left out roughly 10 percent of the head injuries that occurred in the study period (1996-2001). The omissions were blatant because they were hugely public and affected NFL superstars like quarterbacks Troy Aikman, Steve Young, and Kurt Warner.

What to make of the under-reported injury data and how it affected the validity of the studies based on it? Here’s the assessment of a top physician who serves now on the league’s concussion committee:

If somebody made a human error or somebody assumed the data was absolutely correct and didn’t question it, well, we screwed up. If we found it wasn’t accurate and still used it, that’s not a screw-up; that’s a lie.

If this smokescreen strategy sounds familiar—using bad data and getting medical experts to publish studies to defend a product that causes harm—The Times delves into the NFL’s top team to assert a possible why, especially as the league responded to retired players and their head injury lawsuit (eventually settled for $765 million).

Big Tobacco links

The paper says that key NFL figures involved in the concussion controversy, including owners and lawyers, had deep roots and experience with Big Tobacco. These individuals had expertise and even executed parts of Big Tobacco’s decades-long mendacious campaign and defense to blur the now proven scientific and medical truth that cigarettes cause cancer, heart disease, and other killer conditions.

I’ve written before that, because of its sweeping popularity in American life, football, in general, and the pro game, specifically, plays an outsized role in young athletes’ lives. Although it may wreck their brains, young men worship football Friday and Saturday nights beyond common sense. The NFL almost has replaced church as the central Sunday activity in many American households. As more young women have finally and rightly gotten equal opportunities to participate in sports, they, too, have thrown themselves into head-injury risks in playing field collisions, notably in games like soccer.

This all makes it crucial for clear, careful research to be moved to the fore so we can protect athletes from unnecessary, uninformed harm.

But even as the world shifts its views about games and players’ safety, the multi-billion-dollar enterprise of pro football can’t seem to get its head straight about head injuries, especially the ghastly, long-lasting condition known as  chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

To his credit, the NFL’s top health official recently stunned many at a recent congressional hearing with a seven-word statement, acknowledging a causal link between pro football’s brutal hitting and CTE. But in a blink, Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones was telling reporters there is no such link, and the game’s commissioner awkwardly was trying to hold a line between science and his bosses.

How long, though, can the league keep taking hits on this critical concern before its leaders do the right thing?

Just consider these recent reports on CTE, head injuries, and: Raiders’ QB Ken Stabler, women’s soccer star Brandi Chastain, Giants legend Frank Gifford, Redskins receiver Antwaan Randle El, Carolina lineman Ryan Hoffman (who ended up homeless). The Times has a staggering multimedia gallery of the NFL players harmed by concussion and other head injuries.

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