I’ve posted several times in the past few years (here, here, here, here, and here) about the growing likelihood of a connection between playing pro football and a type of brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. But between work and school, I never did get around to writing about the recent $765 million settlement between the NFL and former players that was supposed to put to rest allegations that pro football caused debilitating brain injuries. I personally had reservations about any settlement that allowed the NFL to keep its records secret, and I always meant to circle back to this but never did.
Just as well, because two ESPN investigative reporters are publishing a book that appears to have blown the lid off. All the emphases in the excerpt are mine:
The National Football League conducted a two-decade campaign to deny a growing body of scientific research that showed a link between playing football and brain damage, according to a new book co-authored by a pair of ESPN investigative reporters.
The book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” reports that the NFL used its power and resources to discredit independent scientists and their work; that the league cited research data that minimized the dangers of concussions while emphasizing the league’s own flawed research; and that league executives employed an aggressive public relations strategy designed to keep the public unaware of what league executives really knew about the effects of playing the game. ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated published book excerpts on Wednesday morning.
The NFL’s whitewash of the debilitating neurological effects of playing football suffered by players began under former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who left office in 2006, but continued under his successor, current commissioner Roger Goodell, according to the book written by ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.
The book, which will be released Tuesday by Crown Archetype, compares the NFL’s two decades of actions on health and safety to that of Big Tobacco — the group of cigarette-making corporations whose executives for years covered up the fact their products contained dangerous, addictive, potentially deadly and cancer-causing chemicals.
“There are many differences,” the Fainaru brothers write in “League of Denial,” “but one is that football’s health crisis featured not millions of anonymous victims but very public figures whose grotesque demises seemed almost impossible to reconcile with their personas.”
NFL executives declined to cooperate with the authors on the book. On Wednesday morning, league spokesman Greg Aiello declined to comment.
Among the major findings in “League of Denial,” which the Fainarus spent more than a year researching and writing:
• Two original members of a concussion committee established by Tagliabue disavowed the committee’s major findings, including the NFL’s assertion that concussions were minor injuries that never led to long-term brain injury.
• As far back as 1999, the NFL’s retirement board paid more than $2 million in disability payments to former players after concluding football gave them brain damage. But it would be nearly a decade before league executives would publicly acknowledge a link.
• Beginning in 2000, some of the country’s top neuroscientists warned the NFL that football led to higher rates of depression, memory loss, dementia and brain damage.
• The league in 2005 tried unsuccessfully to have medical journals retract the published work of several independent concussion researchers.
• Independent researchers directly warned Goodell about the connection between football and brain damage in 2007, but the commissioner waited nearly three years to acknowledge the link and to dismantle the league’s discredited concussion committee. In 2009, two other independent researchers delivered still more evidence that football caused brain damage during a private meeting at the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters. Yet the league committee’s co-chairman, Dr. Ira Casson, mocked and challenged the researchers so aggressively that he offended others who were present, including a Columbia University suicide expert and a U.S. Army colonel who directed the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.
• As the crisis escalated, the NFL tried desperately to regain control of the issue and contain damage to its brand. Before an October 2009 hearing on football and brain injuries conducted by the House Judiciary Committee, the NFL lobbied successfully to prevent Goodell from testifying on the same panel as the father of a high school quarterback who had died after sustaining a concussion.
• Dr. Ann McKee, the leading expert on football and brain damage, told the authors that she believes the incidences of neurodegenerative disease among NFL players will prove to be “shockingly high” and that “most NFL players are going to get this. It’s just a question of degree.” Since 2005, when the disease was first diagnosed in deceased NFL players, McKee has studied 54 brains harvested from deceased NFL players. All but two had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). “I’m really wondering where this stops,” she told the Fainarus. “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”
I am particularly struck by the very apt comparison of league officials to tobacco executives. The sole significant difference at this point is that league officials, to my knowledge, have not stood up and lied to Congress about what they knew.
But they’ve run all these smarmy promo ads about how concerned they are about preventing and treating concussions and teaching young kids heads-up tackling and all the rest. Meanwhile, they were just as aware as I and many others of what the research is showing us, which includes the fact that you don’t have to get a concussion, let alone multiple concussions, to sustain brain injury. There’s no technological fix on the horizon for that, and no way to change the game and still have it be recognized as football. Tagliabue and Goodell are guilty of, at the least, negligent homicide
This won’t kill the NFL, of course. But over a generation or two, potential players will drift to other sports, and the audiences with money will, too. The poor and desperate will be the only ones who play, and the NFL will fade into the shadows.