A groundbreaking new book from reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fanairu, set for release next Tuesday, details the extensive lengths the National Football League traveled to cover up links between football, the game at the heart of the league’s $9.7 billion (and growing) annual revenues, and long-term brain damage in the men who played it. Dueling excerpts published today in Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, provide an early look at the book, League of Denial, and the accompanying PBS documentary of the same name that will accompany it.
It’s hard to fathom that anyone has faith in the way the NFL treated concussions and related research over the past two decades, but the details in the Fainaru brothers’ book should make us wonder whether we should trust the league going forward.
Many of the details in today’s excerpts were already known: the NFL knew it had a concussion problem in the early 1990s but failed to acknowledge it. Even then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s contribution, the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, was rife with conflicts — its chief doctor, Elliott Pellman, was a joint doctor and became Tagliabue’s personal physician, its neurologists and other doctors weren’t sold on the danger of concussions, its own name, marred by the word “Mild,” showed how little the NFL thought of the problem. By the early 2000s, a handful of researchers began to discover that the problem with football wasn’t just concussions, but the constant hits to the head that don’t lead to concussions or brain contusions. Rather than accept the research in an attempt to make the game safer, the NFL quashed it, using “its economic, political and media power to attack pioneering research and try to replace it with its own.”
The NFL, according to the excerpts, had its own research, produced from a “wealth of data” about concussions in its games, published in a medical journal edited by a consultant for the New York Giants with the reputation as a “jock sniffer” who loved to trout his association with the league. Different research papers produced by the league’s doctors, with Pellman as the author, tried to discredit the idea that concussed players were more susceptible to further concussions, or that players needed extensive time to heal. The league’s research “concluded that they were at no greater risk than if they had never been concussed at all,” under the circular logic that “because players returned to the field so quickly, they must have been O.K.” The research was questioned by doctors and other concussion experts, yet it was published anyway.
At other times, the NFL ignored experts and research telling them how deep the problems ran. Doctors questioned the NFL’s handling of concussions — everything from its research to its personnel to its ethics — at a conference of team medical personnel that the league convened in 2007, after current commissioner Roger Goodell took over. The league ignored presentations from doctors like Dr. Ann McKee, a brain expert who found that long-term brain damage — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — didn’t necessarily result from concussions but from repetitive hits that are routine to the game. “I felt like they weren’t really listening,” McKee told the authors about her meeting with the NFL and members of the MTBI committee, “like they had their heads in the sand.”
After the original convening of team medical personnel, it took the NFL nearly three years to finally — and tacitly — admit the link between concussions, football, and long-term brain injuries. It did so on concusison protocol posters that hang in every NFL locker room today. Still, as recently as this February, Goodell refused to acknowledge a specific link in a pre-Super Bowl interview on CBS’ Face The Nation. McKee, meanwhile, has since studied the brains of 34 deceased NFL players and found that all but one had CTE. “I don’t think everybody has it, but I think it’s going to be a shockingly high percentage,” she said of the disease (incidentally, McKee is featured prominently in the League of Denial documentary trailer that led ESPN to end its partnership with PBS).
If the excerpts provide only a sampling of what we’ll learn from League of Denial and the accompanying documentary that airs on PBS October 8, one major question results: why should we trust the NFL now?
The league wants us to believe it has shaped up in recent years, that it takes the injuries seriously, that the rule changes it has implemented and the tens of millions of dollars it has dumped into research are evidence of its evolution. It wants us and thousands of former players to believe that the preliminary settlement it has reached with 4,500 men who played the game is the last of the denial, that a new dawn has come to the fight against traumatic brain injuries in football.
But aside from the publicity it gets, the threat today has changed little from the early 1990s. Yes, parents are now somewhat aware of the dangers of sending their kids onto a football field, and even the president of the United States has questioned the game. Yes, current players and journalists will proclaim that the sport will wither and die as parents keep children out of the game. Yes, players are now more aware of the dangers of football than they’ve ever been.
But knowing what we know from the past and the present, why would we trust the NFL or any research that has its brand on it? That’s not to say it should be discounted completely, since it could produce valuable research. But until the NFL proves it can corroborate the research it pays for with independent doctors, until it elevates rather than squashes research that might be bad for its bottom line, until it takes steps to address concussions and injuries in its league and in youth football across the country not because we demand it because it’s the right thing to do, the NFL deserves our ultimate skepticism. This is, after all, a league with aspirations of growing into a $25 billion business by the middle of the next decade. It is a league that wants to move to an 18-game regular season schedule to help it do that, despite concerns about injuries and player safety should it do so. It has moved games to the middle of the week to maximize its national TV schedule and bolster its own network. The NFL still operates in one pursuit — money — and research that proves to Americans that the game might be a little too dangerous is the biggest threat to that bottom line aside from the game itself.
If that research proves what doctors like McKee thinks it might, it won’t tell us that concussions are the problem, but that football is. And if concussions aren’t the real problem, if the real problem is football, why is the NFL any more motivated to tell us that today than it ever has been before?