“League of Denial”: Five Takeaways

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.

21 thoughts on ““League of Denial”: Five Takeaways

  1. Another riveting hit on the NFL, who’s feet you are keeping to the fire on this issue as well as the NCAA also for its myriad sins! Can we safely say its all really, in the final analysis, about who has the most money to burn on lawyer fees…the one constant in all litigation, from class-action lawsuits on down, and the bigger the better for them?

  2. One part that deserves more attention is how in the pamphlet the NFL handed out on concussions, they used the verb “manage” rather than “treat”. That pamphlet was handed out, if I remember correctly from the doc, in 2007 so it would’ve been vetted by NFL upper brass plus lawyers who’d scour it for culpable language. You treat an acute injury. You manage a chronic condition. The NFL belied its rhetoric.

  3. Your analogy with coal miners is interesting. I’m sure people will point out the big difference in pay scale between coal miners and football players, but the basic point stands: an organization that willfully ignores the health risks to employees is culpable at best, criminal at worst.

    Also, you’re dead on about the NFLPA. While Paul Tagliabue’s being (rightly, it seems) vilified, what about the late Gene Upshaw? Seems to me that he’s at least an accomplice.

    • The problem with the NFLPA is that it’s always been weak. They have never won any major battle with the NFL, their CBA guarantees very little for most of the players, and for a long time, former players like Upshaw ran the union, instead of labor leaders. They are in the infancy of being a real union with new leadership, and they started with a bad hand. We’ll see.

  4. I watched the program last night and it was riveting. It reminded me of that movie “The Insider” with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe about the tobacco company corporate officer whistleblower who went on 60 Minutes to say what we all suspected, that these tobacco companies knew full-well that cigarettes caused serious long-term health problems and that nicotine was addictive. But their’s was a marketing and sales culture and so they just ignored and replaced (and harassed!) all the science and medical experts who got in their way on the issue. And nobody had ever won ANY lawsuits against them because they had so much money, they would “spend you do death” in a court of law. So yeah, I definitely agreed when the comparison of the NFL to the tobacco industry was raised.

  5. So, if the NFL is willing to go this far into denial of what can happen playing football, is it far fetched to believe that they’re not doing other things like fixing games? I think it’d be easier to have games fixed than establish an entire front against the concussions.

    • Though it may seem easier to fix any one game during the season as opposed to systematically deceiving the players and the public, it is actually much more difficult. In order to deceive, the NFL needs to have a small group of people, mainly lawyers, to get on the same page. Much of their plan was to choose to fund those who would agree and choose not to fund those who would disagree. At the end of the day, only a few people had to really know the plan. In order to fix a game, many people have to know what is going on. At a minimum, the head coach and both coordinators on the team to lose must know. Considering how leaky everything around the NFL is, I find it hard to believe that this many people could know without someone slipping.

  6. This is a nitpick, but “Smoking cigarettes causes cancer” is not an accurate statement. Smoking increases the probability of getting cancer.

  7. Somewhere, at some point, a brief discussion about what it would take to get rid of Goodell would be helpful. I take it the owners can vote him out? Or is that wrong? The NFL could kill one bird and at least maim another with one stone: they can get rid of a guy who doesn’t understand that ‘Redskin’ is a racist term, and they can at least begin to deal with the concussion problem. The former issue is easy; given the nature of the game, the latter is a lot messier.

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  10. Moving forward, the NFL solution seems to be teaching proper technique with the HeadsUp program. While proper technique may reduce missed tackles, there is no reason to believe it will do anything to reduce concussions. Concussions often result from deceleration with the brain impacting the skull. This occurs with a shoulder planted into a runners chest, especially if both players are moving a full speed. How can the league be pushing this as a solution when there is no evidence it will change anything, and no reason to believe it either. The other ignored issue is that children, with relatively larger heads and weaker necks, are more susceptible to whiplash type injuries. Shining a light on the consequences for current and former NFLers is merited, but many more kids and teens play than do adults, and we have no idea if they are being harmed.

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