The NFL has rubbished suggestions that it was negligent on player safety after an investigation by the New York Times revealed that the league’s historical research on concussions was much more inadequate than previously thought.
The Times revealed that more than 100 diagnoses were omitted from the league’s official safety log that recorded concussions between 1996 and 2001 — including some severe injuries to stars such as Steve Young and Troy Aikman. The NFL then calculated concussion rates using the incomplete data, making them appear less frequent than they actually were.
But the NFL poured scorn on the Times report, claiming the “sensationalized story” was “contradicted by clear facts that refute both the thesis of the story and each of its allegations.”
The Times reported that the league sponsored research in 13 peer-reviewed articles from October 2003, which was supposed to be based on a full account of all diagnosed concussions reported by NFL team doctors between 1996 and 2001. But 100 diagnoses were missing from 887 recorded concussions – about 10% of the total number.
The NFL admitted that teams were not required to submit their data, and not every club did. The league maintained, however, that the missing data was not part of an attempt to “alter or suppress the rate of concussions”.
In a strong rebuttal, the NFL said the data was “necessarily preliminary and acknowledged that much more research was needed.” It continued: “Since that time, the NFL has been on the forefront of promoting and funding independent research on these complex issues.
“The studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported or that occurred.”
The NFL acknowledged that “contact sports will never be concussion-free” but insisted: “We are dedicated to caring for our players, not just throughout long careers but over the course of long lives.”
In 1994, following a number of high-profile early retirements linked to head trauma, the NFL formed its own research committee, which the time said “repeatedly denied the link between football and brain disease and attacked independent scientists who suggested otherwise.” Most of the committee members had a link to an NFL team, and the chairman was Dr Elliot Pellman, the team doctor for the New York Jets.
For example, no Dallas Cowboys players appear in the database, most significantly Aikman, whose multiple concussions contributed to his retirement. Other teams have no listings for years at a time.
Dr Robert Cantu, one of the peer reviewers who at the time criticized the NFL, told the Times: “It should be an unmistakable red flag that a team does not report any concussions over multiple years.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell broke up the research committee in 2009, and the NFL brought in independent experts like Dr Richard Ellenbogen, the chairman of the neurological surgery department at the University of Washington.
Ellenbogen was severely critical of the committee’s previous work. “You can’t have the NFL doing studies,” he said. “You gotta get people who don’t owe us anything.”
The league has proposed a $1bn settlement to resolve concussion lawsuits brought by former NFL players, but a small group of players have asked a federal appeals court to throw out the accord because it excluded players yet to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE, a degenerative condition linked to repeated blows to the head, is considered “the signature disease of football”.
Jeff Miller, the NFL’s top health and safety officer, acknowledged earlier this month that there is a link between football-related head trauma and CTE, the first time a senior league official has conceded football’s connection to the devastating brain disease. Roger Goodell did not dispute Miller’s statement at the NFL owners’ meeting this week.
One member of the concussion committee, Dr Joseph Waeckerle, said he was unaware of the missing data.
“If somebody made a human error or somebody assumed the data was absolutely correct and didn’t question it, well, we screwed up,” Waeckerle told the Times. “If we found it wasn’t accurate and still used it, that’s not a screw-up; that’s a lie.”
The Times report suggested strategic ties between the NFL and large tobacco firms in the way the league had handled the concussion crisis, although the newspaper conceded it had “found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco.”
The NFL said that Times had “published pages of innuendo and speculation for a headline with no basis in fact.”
This article was written by Guardian sport, for theguardian.com on Thursday 24th March 2016 18.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010