The NFL and the New York Times have traded barbs in recent days over a bombshell report on the league's suspect brain injury research. Last Thursday, the Times published a sprawling article accusing the NFL of releasing incomplete study results and adopting the tobacco industry's notorious PR tactics for denying their product's health risks. But while the piece is largely centered around establishing direct links between the NFL and Big Tobacco, let's not lose sight of its most important takeaway: evidence of a systematically dishonest approach to minimizing football's concussion risks.
"Concussions can hardly be equated with smoking, which kills 1,300 people a day in the United States, and The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco," wrote the authors, Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich and Jacqueline Williams. "But records show a long relationship between two businesses with little in common beyond the health risks associated with their products." The Times notes that over the years, the NFL has hired "lobbyists, lawyers and consultants" previously employed by the tobacco industry.
The NFL fired back almost immediately, issuing a point-by-point statement refuting several key claims and accusing the Times of engaging in "innuendo and speculation" in linking the league with Big Tobacco. Five of the six points are intended to dismiss the tobacco connections as organic business or personal relationships.
The Times might have overplayed the tobacco angle -- an understandable pitfall given the natural comparisons between the dangers of football and cigarettes. Like football, smoking was once ubiquitous in America. It managed to maintain its popularity for far too long, thanks to a concerted public campaign to deny its health effects. Last year, I wrote about how the NFL seemed to mirror Big Tobacco's tactics in whitewashing years of reliable scientific research, eventually shifting its strategy from denial to doubt.
But focusing too closely on trying to establish a concrete link between the two businesses distracts from the real crux of the investigation: the multiple holes found in years of NFL-sponsored studies. The effort given to imply a football-tobacco conspiracy would have been better used to highlight the Times's finding that the NFL omitted more than 100 diagnosed concussions from its data set. The manipulation of research to convey a favorable public message that carries some semblance of scientific authority is indeed a trick out of Big Tobacco's playbook; that the NFL allegedly used that strategy at all is the story here.
Starting in 1994, the NFL's newly formed concussion committee released several studies denying or downplaying the link between football and chronic brain damage. Some of these studies purported to have taken a full account of all concussions diagnosed by team doctors from 1996 to 2001. For more than a decade, the NFL has stood by this research, publishing 13 peer-reviewed articles in respected medical journals.
As the Times notes, many skeptics have long doubted the validity of so-called "independent research" funded by the league. The deeper you dig into these studies, the more conflicts of interest you find with researchers who receive NFL funding in the form of grants or employment as team doctors. The NFL recently pulled funding for a study headed by a vocal critic of the league's concussion policy.
But publishing a data set that leaves out more than 10 percent of diagnosed concussions is a whole new level of sketchy. Among those omitted were Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Wayne Chrebet -- whose team doctor with the New York Jets, Elliot Pellman, was once the head of the concussion committee and the lead author on every study.
In its statement Thursday, the NFL reiterated what it told the Times -- that the concussion committee had been clear that the data set had limitations: "The studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported or that occurred." The league acknowledged to the Times that it didn't mandate reporting by every team, and thus we get entire teams, like Troy Aikman's Dallas Cowboys, reporting no concussions in that five-year span. Yet the Times reports that "in confidential peer-review documents, the [concussion] committee wrote that 'all N.F.L. teams participated' and that 'all players were therefore part of this study.' "
It's infuriating that the NFL would tout such selective data as a comprehensive accounting of the prevalence of concussions in football. It's even more infuriating that its researchers long criticized other studies for supposedly not being comprehensive enough. In 2007, committee co-chair Ira Casson dismissed a survey of 2,500 retired players that suggested a strong correlation between multiple concussions and clinical depression. "Survey studies are the weakest type of research study -- they're subject to all kinds of error and misinterpretation and miscalculation," Casson said.
In this way, the NFL cast doubt on legitimate research while holding up its peer-review process to legitimize its own findings. But in analyzing this confidential process, the Times found that the peer reviewers tried to stop publication of league-supported studies several times, with one writing that some conclusions "are inappropriate and not founded on facts."
Most on both sides agree that football-related brain injury needs more research, but the league's actions to this point inspire little confidence in the accuracy of future results.