NFL’s Endless Defense Against Lethal Threat to American Football
Denial and Counter Attack Began with Spurious Journal Studies
After Paying Off Players with Pittance, NFL Contradicts Its AdmissionFrontline tonight (Oct 8 Tues 2013) is a nice two hour study of the best case of science denial in American commerce since the tobacco hearings of the fifties – the NFL.
From the beginning the $8 billion revenue NFL maintained a steadfast denial of the autopsy evidence implicating football concussion in brain damage and resulting disorientation, depression and suicide among former players.
They called the doctor, an honest and intelligent black researcher named Omalu, who detected the physical signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in the brains of dead NFL athletes, a charlatan who was practicing “voodoo” science in the article he published in Neurosurgery, after they had published bad science earlier in the very same journal denying the connection.
Even when the NFL decided to cooperate in research into concussion (if you cant beat them, join them) they scorned Amalu and turned to other pioneers at Boston University who had nailed down more evidence (including that small collisions that do not leave any overt symptoms can cause damage even in children and cause suicide in a player in his early twenties) that American football is fatal to the brain, apparently irredeemably.
Instead the NFL turned to the NIH and then to Boston University
with a million dollar grant and acted as if they were on the job pursuing research to find out the real truth.
But in fact after the players won a $765 million settlement a month or two ago (much less than the $2 billion they could have got in a trial which would have revealed the details of exactly how the NFL has interfered with finding out the truth) the NFL has retreated from acknowledging a link to not admitting that NFL players suffer from the after effects of football concussion until further studies are done, preferably as long in the future as possible.
One quote encapsulates why the rearguard action the NFL is fighting so hard is inevitable: “If just 10% of American mothers realize how lethal concussion is, American football is over”.
In 2009, a leaked NFL research study seemed to mark a game-changer in the debate around football’s concussion crisis. Former players, the research found, suffered from memory-related diseases at a rate that was 19 times higher than the general population.
The study went to the heart of the question of prevalence — how many former players were suffering? And the fact that it was commissioned by the NFL only added to its significance.
“It was the people who the league hired to find out the answers to these questions, giving them the answers,” Alan Schwarz of The New York Times told FRONTLINE. Schwarz was given a copy of the study at a Manhattan steak house. “It was very deep throat,” he said. “You knew that this was going to be big.”
There was one problem: The league was backing away from the findings. In a message to Schwarz, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the study had shortcomings, noting that “there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.”
The story sparked national attention. Within weeks, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was testifying on Capitol Hill. With the league’s concussion stance under intense public scrutiny, lawmakers were comparing the NFL to Big Tobacco.
Suddenly, the league was in damage control. It shook up its concussion committee, introduced new rules geared at player safety and donated $1 million to Boston University for brain research. As you’ll see in the following scene from League of Denial: Inside the NFL’s Concussion Crisis, the effort ended with a surprise acknowledgment from what Schwarz described as an “annoyed” Greg Aiello:
In the film, which premieres tonight beginning at 9 pm EST, FRONTLINE investigates the hidden story of the NFL’s response to head injuries. Through interviews with former players, scientists and other experts on the concussion issue, it examines what the NFL knew about the risks of such injuries, and when it knew it.