Editor’s note: following Tuesday night’s premiere of the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial,” Sports on Earth asked staff writer Patrick Hruby to share his thoughts on the film that the National Football League doesn’t want you to see.
1. Actually, the players didn’t know what they were signing up for: Ever since the first concussion lawsuits were filed by former players against the NFL in 2011, some football fans and commentators have voiced a simple refrain. Football causes brain damage? Duh. It’s a violent sport. Getting hit in the head is bad for you. These guys knew the risks. And now they want to sue? Total money grab.
As “League of Denial” makes clear, the above sentiment is uninformed at best, willfully idiotic at worst. While the independent medical and scientific community was sounding alarm bells about the dangers of both concussions and repeated blows to the head for more than a decade, the NFL’s handpicked brain trauma committee — staffed by league loyalists and run by former New York Jets team doctor/rheumatologist Elliott Pellman — was (a) busy fudging data to produce a series of bogus papers that totally coincidentally (!) concluded concussions posed neither short-nor-long-term health risks; (b) dismissing and actively attempting to discredit anyone who thought otherwise, including neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, the first person to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain of a former football player.
Moreover, the NFL committee’s – ahem – research informed its medical care, or more accurately, its lack thereof. Team doctors and trainers routinely spent concussed players back into action too soon, often during the same game, a practice that left the likes of former Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet with post-concussive syndrome and other lasting health consequences. Imagine this: You work in a coal mine. For 15 years, a group of company doctors blow off the American Lung Association and repeatedly insist that black lung isn’t real. Meanwhile, the company takes zero steps to limit your exposure to harmful inhalants. If you later found out the truth – and were regularly hacking up bloody sputum to boot – would you consider a lawsuit? And would said lawsuit be a money grab?
2. The Big Tobacco analogy is apt: During a 2009 Congressional hearing on brain damage and football that’s referenced in the film, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) likened the NFL to the tobacco industry. It’s hard to argue the point. Confronted with a growing body of evidence indicating that their product was a public health risk — in a nutshell: Smoking cigarettes causes cancer — companies such as Phillip Morris did not move to self-regulate, warn consumers or otherwise act for the common good. Instead, they launched legal and public relations offensives designed to limit liability while muddling and obscuring the problem — or, as ESPN the Magazine writer Peter Keating puts it in “League of Denial,” to put off their “day of reckoning.”
As mentioned above, the NFL did the same thing. Fun fact that is only alluded to in the film: before and after his tenure as league commissioner, Paul Tagliabue worked for the law firm Covington & Burling — the same firm that devised much of Big Tobacco’s worldwide defense strategy, including recruiting and paying off scientific consultants to propagandize on behalf of the industry. In a 2006 ruling against tobacco companies, Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia specifically mentioned Covington and noted the following:
Finally, a word must be said about the role of lawyers in this fifty-year history of deceiving smokers, potential smokers, and the American public about the hazards of smoking and second hand smoke, and the addictiveness of nicotine. At every stage, lawyers played an absolutely central role in the creation and perpetuation of the Enterprise and the implementation of its fraudulent schemes. They devised and coordinated both national and international strategy; they directed scientists as to what research they should and should not undertake; they vetted scientific research papers and reports as well as public relations materials to ensure that the interests of the Enterprise would be protected; they identified ‘friendly’ scientific witnesses, subsidized them with grants from the Center for Tobacco Research and the Center for Indoor Air Research, paid them enormous fees, and often hid the relationship between those witnesses and the industry; and they devised and carried out document destruction policies and took shelter behind baseless assertions of the attorney client privilege.
Does the NFL’s brain damage defense strategy go this far? Let’s hope not. Still, it’s interesting to note that Tagliabue earned $8.5 million from the league in 2010, and that NFL executive vice president and head lawyer Jeff Pash is a former Covington partner.
3. Roger Goodell is part of the problem: The NFL’s denial didn’t end when Goodell replaced Tagliabue in 2006. Time magazine’s supposed Man Who Will Save Football has presided over some of the league’s most dissonant moments. Goodell and his deputies ran meetings where league-affiliated doctors and scientists dismissed and openly mocked independent researchers who happened to be telling, you know, the truth. The commissioner personally barred Eleanor Perfetto, the wife of a former player with dementia, from attending a meeting of retired players. Called out before Congress in 2009, he refused to acknowledge a link between football and brain damage — and did the exact same thing on “Face the Nation” earlier this year.
4. The NFL deserves skepticism, not trust: “League of Denial” makes clear that the NFL has treated brain damage as a legal problem first, a PR problem second and a health and safety problem a distant third. Protecting the sport’s popularity and profitability took precedence over protecting its participants. Has anything really changed? Goodell remains in charge. As of earlier this year, Pellman remained a league medical adviser. Other members of Pellman’s committee remain directly and indirectly affiliated with the NFL. The league continues to work with and fund scientists, albeit different ones. The conflicts of interest that define NFL medicine and helped create its brain trauma crisis have been neither discussed nor resolved. If a recent proposed settlement to the concussion lawsuits is approved, we may never know the full extent of what the league knew and when it knew it — and more important, who at the league knew what. Are those people still around? Still calling the shots? Does that ongoing uncertainty — coupled with an utterly dubious track record — really make the NFL the best organization to spearhead medical research and safety initiatives? When Goodell shows up at youth football clinics and proclaims the sport is “safer and more exciting than ever,” is there any reason to believe he’s being sincere?
5. Where was the union? The National Football League Players’ Association is barely mentioned in “League of Denial.” It barely has been mentioned in the ongoing coverage of this topic, even though its primary job is to protect the well-being its membership. What gives? The NFL’s sins of commission look downright awful in the film; read between the lines, and the NFLPA’s seeming sins of omission look nearly as bad.