In a pre-Super Bowl interview on CBS’ Face The Nation, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly refused to acknowledge a link between brain injuries and football, even as a growing amount of research is making the link between the game and the development of debilitating cognitive diseases ever clearer and perhaps even overwhelming.
CBS host Bob Schieffer asked Goodell point blank if he would acknowledge the link between football and brain injuries. Goodell demurred: “That’s why we’re investing in the research. So that we can answer the question, what is the link? What causes some of the injuries that our players are still dealing with? And we take those issues very seriously.”
Later, Goodell again ignored the question. “We’re going to let the medical individuals make those points,” Goodell said. “We’re going to give them the money, advance that science. In the meantime, we have to do everything we can to advance the game and make sure it’s safe.” The NFL, he added, has not covered up the links between concussions and brain disease. Instead, “the NFL has led the way.”
Taken together, research has formed a strong link between football and degenerative brain diseases. NFL players are four times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s Disease than the general population, and recent studies have bolstered the links between football and degenerative brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been linked to dementia, depression, and suicide. Other studies have shown that football players perform worse on cognitive tests than non-football players.
And the NFL has hardly “led the way” into concussion research, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Malcolm Burnley showed recently in a timeline of the NFL’s response to concussions. The first chair of the league’s concussion task force, formed in 1994, regarded concussions as an “occupational hazard,” and the league rejected the American Academy of Neurology’s guidelines for returning concussed players to competition in 2000. It was still publishing research skeptical of the dangers of concussions in 2005; in 2007, it still claimed that research did not show that “having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly,” even though CTE had already been found in multiple dead former football players.
That’s not a history of leading the way. That’s a history of standing in the way. The league and Goodell have plenty of reason to continue standing in the way, given that acknowledging a link between football and brain injuries, as well as the league’s role in obscuring that link in the past, would open it up to legal and medical liabilities it doesn’t want and possibly can’t afford. It would turn the discussion from one centered around how to make football safer to one centered around whether football can be made safer. And that discussion would jeopardize the $8 billion (and growing) industry that is professional football. Goodell isn’t obstinate in the face of an increasingly clear reality because no link exists. He’s obstinate because acknowledging that link would threaten the business he oversees.