Pellman steps down as NFL's top concussion expert

Updated: February 28, 2007, 6:47 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Dr. Elliot Pellman, whose work as the head of the NFL's concussion committee has been investigated by ESPN The Magazine and criticized by experts in the field, has stepped down from his post.

More On Concussions
Last fall, ESPN The Magazine's Peter Keating took an in-depth look at Dr. Elliot Pellman, his findings as head of the NFL's concussion committee, and why other medical experts disagreed with his findings. Story
Pellman, the head of the committee since it was formed in 1994, asked to be relieved of his duties as chairman, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Baltimore Sun, who first reported the story. Dr. Ira Casson, a neurologist from Nassau, N.Y., and Dr. David Viano, a biomechanical engineer from Wayne State University, will head the committee, Aiello said.

Pellman did not respond to a phone message from The Sun requesting an interview.

Last fall, ESPN The Magazine reported that Pellman was selective in his use of injury reports in reaching his conclusions and omitted large numbers of players from the league's concussion study. His findings also contradicted other scientific studies into the effects of concussions:

• In January 2005, Pellman and his colleagues wrote that returning to play after a concussion "does not involve significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season." But a 2003 NCAA study of 2,905 college football players found just the opposite: Those who have suffered concussions are more susceptible to further head trauma for seven to 10 days after the injury.

• Pellman, a rheumatologist, and his group have also stated repeatedly that their work shows "no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects of multiple [mild traumatic brain injury] in NFL players." But a 2003 report by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina found a link between multiple concussions and depression among former pro players with histories of concussions. And a 2005 follow-up study at the Center showed a connection between concussions and both brain impairment and Alzheimer's disease among retired NFL players.

Since the ESPN The Magazine story appeared, more concerns about the long-term effects of concussions have been raised following a pair of news stories involving retired players:

• A forensic pathologist's study of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters' brain, taken after Waters committed suicide, suggested that brain damage Waters sustained during his career have led to his depression and ultimately his suicide.

The forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, told The New York Times that the condition of Waters' brain tissue was what would be expected in an 85-year-old man, and there were characteristics of someone being in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Omalu said he believes the brain damage had come from or had been quickened by successive concussions.

Waters was 44 and a father of three when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Nov. 20 in Tampa, Fla., three days before Thanksgiving.

• In interviews with ESPN's Wendy Nix and stories in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who is dealing with memory loss and depression, said he believes those symptoms are related to repeated concussions during his career.

His neurologist, Dr. Robert Cantu, told The New York Times that Johnson is showing early signs of Alzheimer's, describing the symptoms as "rather classic post-concussion symptoms. ... They are most likely permanent."

Pellman's decision to step down was met with continued criticism of his work, the Sun reported. Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, said Pellman was "the wrong person to chair the committee from a scientific perspective and the right person from the league's perspective."

"We found this at the high school level, the college level and the professional level, that once you had a concussion or two you are at increased risk for future concussions," Guskiewicz told the newspaper. "[Pellman] continued to say on the record that's not what they find and there's no truth to it."

Aiello told the Sun that Pellman "will continue as a member of the committee and will continue to be the administrative liaison with our office."