Times investigation reports alarming increase in concussions

For the last few years, the NFL has begun to acknowledge the growing concern of concussions in professional football. This is especially true considering its admission last week that there is a link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma. On March 24, The New York Times released its shocking investigative report that the NFL tried to play down the danger of head injuries. In 1994, after a succession of high-profile players retired early because of head injuries, the NFL formed a concussion committee to conduct research on the number of concussions diagnosed by team physicians from 1996 to 2001. The Times found that this research was faulty and misleading, and therefore did not portray the true danger of head injuries.

The research used incomplete data to calculate the concussion rate, making it seem as if the concussions were occurring less frequently than they really were. The studies also left out more than 100 concussions that were reported in the media and in the NFL’s injury reports. Among these omissions were stars such as quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Young, who at times suffered severe head injuries. The Dallas Cowboys, whom Aikman played for, did not have a single concussion listed in the committee’s database over the entire six years. But, according to the NFL’s injury reports, Aikman had a total of four concussions or head injuries over that length of time. The San Francisco 49ers, whom Young played for, did not have a concussion in the database from 1997 to 2000. But the NFL’s injury reports once again show that Young had two concussions over that period, the second of which ended his career. In addition to the Cowboys and 49ers, many more teams did not give the NFL their concussion reports.

The league told the Times that the “clubs were not required to submit their data and not every club did,” and teams were only encouraged to submit their data. Although, the NFL stated that the study “never purported” to include all concussions, one paper by the committee claimed that any player with a head injury, no matter the severity, would be included in the study. In addition, contradictory to what the NFL told the Times, in confidential peer-review documents, the committee wrote that “all NFL teams participated” and “all players were therefore part of this study.” This raises the question: Why would teams not be required to give over their concussion data? If the committee really wanted to find out the concussion rate, then what is the point of just having some of the teams submit data, and as a result find only a percentage of the total concussions? Although it may be very difficult to know about every single concussion because players often deny symptoms, a majority of the omitted concussions were included in the NFL’s injury reports, which meant that the team physicians diagnosed the concussions and reported them to the league.

One of the biggest problems with the committee was that almost everyone on the committee had ties to NFL teams, which created a conflict of interest. The chairman of the committee, Dr. Elliot Pellman, was the team physician for the New York Jets. Wayne Chrebet, wide receiver for the New York Jets, suffered two of the concussions missing from the study, and he ended up retiring years later after more concussions. Pellman diagnosed Chrebet’s two concussions, since he was the Jets’s team physician, but he did not include those two concussions in the research. One possible explanation is that the committee and the rest of the NFL were trying to play down the issue of concussions in the NFL.

The most disturbing aspect of the Times’s report is the link between the NFL and the tobacco industry. The Times describes that the NFL and the tobacco industry shared lawyers, lobbyists and consultants, and that the late owner of the New York Giants, Preston Tisch, was a part owner of the Lorillard Tobacco Company. In 1992, Tisch asked the legal counsel of Lorillard, Arthur Stevens, to speak to the NFL commissioner about particular legal issues. Stevens sent the commissioner two cases that alleged the tobacco and asbestos industries were covering up the health risks of their products. In essence, the Times implies that this misleading research on concussions shows the NFL’s similarity in covering up the ills of their business to the tobacco industry.

The committee calculated a lower concussion rate because so many teams did not have any concussions counted in the study, but all of their games over the research period were counted. The league officials and the people involved in the research should have made sure that they were collecting data accurately in order to really find out whether there was a concussion problem in the NFL. Because of the lower concussion rate, the committee incorrectly concluded that head trauma posed no significant danger for the players.