NFL Sends Threatening Letter To New York Times, Demands Retraction Of Concussion Investigation

CREDIT: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during the first round of the 2015 NFL Football Draft.

Last week, the New York Times published a revealing investigation, “NFL’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to the Tobacco Industry.”

On Monday, the NFL wrote a letter demanding the NYT immediately retract the “false and defamatory” article. The letter, which POLITICO published in full on its website, lays the groundwork for a potential lawsuit by requesting that NYT reporters and editors preserve all notes and correspondences related to the article.

On March 25, the article in question reported that from 1996-2001, the NFL omitted more than 100 concussions from data that was used in extensive concussion research. The article also revealed that the league shares connections to the tobacco industry.

The NFL almost immediately released a long rebuttal, primarily fighting against the claims that it has a relationship with the tobacco industry and intentionally omitted the data. (The NFL says the survey on concussions was not mandatory.) The league even bought digital ads in the Times to publicize its player safety advancements. The NYT very quickly responded to the NFL’s rebuttal with a series of tweets.

All of this occurred the week after an NFL official admitted, for the first time, that there was a link between football and the degenerative brain disease CTE. That admission set off a firestorm about football and concussions, with a couple of NFL owners dismissing the connection and members of congress officially asking the league to explain why it recently intervened in a concussion study. To top it all off, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was announced as the recipient of a health and safety award.

This most recent letter by the NFL proves that the league has been very rattled by the NYT investigation, and is committed to defending its actions in the past and keeping its name from being linked with the tobacco industry. However, most of the damage is already done, and the paper is sticking by its story.

"Our reporting showed that more than 100 such concussions -- including some sustained by star players -- were not included in the [NFL's] data set, resulting in inaccurate findings," NYT Sports Editor Jason Stallmon told POLITICO, also noting that a co-owner of the New York Giants has direct ties to the tobacco industry and that "the NFL and the tobacco industry shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants."

It remains to be seen whether the NFL will take any further action on this, and if its thinly-veiled lawsuit threats hold any weight. As others, including Will Brinson of CBS Sports, have pointed out, "It's hard to imagine the NFL wanting a lawsuit about concussions going public."

If the league has any doubts about the damage that a lawsuit like this could do, it should ask the National Hockey League. On Monday, private NHL emails about concussions were unsealed as part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit over concussions.