Pushed By Former Players, NFL Further Muddles Its Message On Concussions

A group of 17 former NFL players sent a letter to commissioner Roger Goodell this week asking him to bolster medical care options for former players, many of whom go without insurance once their playing days are over because it is too costly to cover their injuries. The players, 10 of whom are among the more than 4,000 players suing the league over concussions and long-term brain injuries, also told Goodell they were concerned about “continued denial of the link between repeated head impacts and permanent brain damage,” according to the Associated Press.

But the NFL says it doesn’t deny those links, at least not anymore. “We have not seen the letter, but we make no such denial regarding concussions,” NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello told the AP. “In fact, our concussion poster for players in every locker room, created in conjunction with the CDC a few years ago, states: ‘Repetitive brain injury, when not managed promptly and properly, may cause permanent damage to your brain.’”

Aiello’s explanation doesn’t really square with what Goodell said about concussions in a pre-Super Bowl interview on CBS’s Face The Nation in February. When host Bob Schieffer asked specifically if the NFL would acknowledge the link between football, concussions, and long-term brain injuries, Goodell dodged it, saying, “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.”

So maybe “denial” is the wrong word, because while the NFL denied and obscured those links for years in the past, it isn’t necessarily denying them anymore. Instead, it’s just refusing to explicitly and publicly acknowledge them. Disappointing as former players might find that, though, it shouldn’t surprise them. As I’ve explained before, an explicit, public acknowledgement of the fact that the repetitive hits that are a routine part of football can do significant damage to the brain could also do significant damage to the NFL’s $8 billion-and-growing bottom line. So while Goodell and Co. will keep donating money and instituting rule changes to try to reduce concussions and make the game safer, it has to walk a fine line when it comes to openly acknowledging the links between its game and long-term brain injuries, at least until it’s done litigating.