See no evil? The NFL won't face concussion facts
Sad but true: You didn't have to actually read the comments by the NFL or the doctors on its concussions committee to know how they were going to respond to the Andre Waters case.In a New York Times story on Thursday, forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh says that former NFLer Waters had the brain of an 85-year-old man with signs of Alzheimer's disease before he killed himself on Nov. 20, and that multiple concussions caused or severely worsened Waters' brain damage. And as usual, you could count on the league and the scientists conducting research for its committee on mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) to channel South Park's Officer Barbrady, who likes to say, "OK, people, move along - there's nothing to see here." For years, the NFL has maintained there is no scientific evidence connecting concussions to lasting injuries or brain damage while also asserting that its committee is about to look into the matter. In November 2003, Dr. Elliot Pellman, medical adviser to the NFL and chairman of its MTBI committee, appeared on HBO's "Inside the NFL" to discuss a report by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes that linked multiple concussions and depression among former pro players with histories of concussions. "When I look at that study, I don't believe it," Pellman said flatly. Later, however, he announced the committee would begin to study the long-term effects of concussions.
In December 2004, Pellman, Lovell and their colleagues published the sixth of an ongoing series of papers in the journal Neurosurgery. In that report - and over the objections of several of the scientists who reviewed it - they stated: "The results of this present study support the authors' previous work, which indicated that there was no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects of multiple MTBIs in NFL players." Their study found "no evidence" of "widespread permanent or cumulative effects of single or multiple MTBIs in professional football players."
No worsening injury, no cumulative effects, no widespread permanent damage from concussions.Indeed, Pellman, Lovell et al found that, on average, NFL athletes didn't show a decline in brain function after suffering concussions, or after three or more concussions, or after taking blows to the head that kept them out a week or more. Despite blistering criticism over the study's small sample size and voluntary participation, these are the results that made it into print, and these are the results to which the league points when arguing that it doesn't put players at unnecessary risk. As independent research continues to paint a different picture, the NFL is finding itself pushed further and further out on a limb. It's getting harder to deny the assertions of outside doctors and former players that concussions are linked to lasting problems. "It's skating on dangerously thin ice to argue that there's no connection between multiple concussions and a decline in brain function, and it's amazing that the league continues to do so," says Chris Nowinski, author of "Head Games: Football's Concussions Crisis." (Nowinski is the man who obtained permission from Waters' family for Omalu to examine Waters' brain.) Yet it also would be difficult for the NFL to turn its back on its own research and admit it has a long-term concussions problem. The league is well-known in legal circles for tenaciously fighting even minor disability claims, and the last thing it wants to face is a flood of lawsuits by athletes who suffered head injuries and kept playing. "There is the potential for bankrupting the league pension and disability plan if the NFL had to honor claims of disability brought by players who have concussions," says Michael Kaplen, a New York lawyer who specializes in brain injuries. Some doctors and former players have long suspected that the NFL has always intended to use the MTBI committee's work as a bulwark against just such liability. One of the scientists who reviewed the committee's work for Neurosurgery told ESPN The Magazine: "They're basically trying to prepare a defense for when one of these players sues. ... They are trying to say that what's done in the NFL is OK because in their studies, it doesn't look like bad things are happening from concussions." But as the concussion committee's studies turn out to be flawed or incomplete and outsiders are linking concussions to serious illness and even death, the NFL is going to need a new strategy. Its same old dismiss-and-wait statement on Andre Waters shows it's still looking for one. Peter Keating writes about sports business for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Dingers: A Short History of the Long Ball," is available now on Amazon.com.