On Oct. 8, PBS aired “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” which chronicles how the League denied any and all information from 1994 to present day about whether participating in football could cause cognitive disorders. Left in its wake were discredited scientists, grieving families, and players (current and former) questioning whether or not their career could drastically shorten their life.
The NFL under then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue founded a committee in 1994 to oversee concussion research, the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, and was headed by Dr. Elliot Pellman, a then-team doctor of the New York Jets with no previous experience in neuroscience.
In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu found signs of cognitive damage in the brain of Mike Webster, a former NFL player who had recently passed, and published his findings in a scientific journal. The NFL responded with a vengeance, dismissing the findings and requested that the article be redacted. Omalu did not redact his article and later found signs of CTE spell out (a condition resulting from brain damage) in three other former players, but the NFL did not take this research to be sound.
Things would not change much in 2007 when Roger Goodell took over for Tagliabue as the League discounted evidence in a Boston University (BU) study done on former players in 2009 on the grounds that the research was not thorough. The accumulation of negative publicity would eventually result in Goodell having to testify in the Supreme Court to prove that the League did not hide any information about head trauma.
In court, Goodell deferred inquiries about the causation of CTE to the hands of neuroscientists and was likened to “Big Tobacco” for the League’s unwillingness to come forward with a straight answer on the issue. As a result, the NFL instituted rule changes regarding concussions as well as giving $30 million to the National Institute of Health and a one million dollar donation to BU, making it the “brain bank” of the League. Further research by Boston revealed signs of CTE in high school and college players.
This year, the NFL settled a lawsuit from former players about its role in supplying concussion information. In the settlement, the players received 765 million dollars while the League claimed no responsibility in regards to damages resulting from football and did not have to testify.
I can see both sides of the concussion argument: scientists and players believe there is sufficient evidence to conclude that playing football can result in long-term, life-threatening cognitive disorders while the League is right in contending that there is not enough data to make that assertion (even though they have not been taking brain trauma seriously until recently) and that there are many other variables in players that could have resulted in their diagnosis.
But there has to be a real concern for the League’s brand image as a result of this research. As more information about CTE and its relationship to football is made available to the public, parents would be hesitant to put their sons at risk for these types of injuries, which could result in a diminished product on the field and decreased popularity for the sport.
I would have to agree with the parents. There is no way I would let my children (hypothetical or otherwise) participate in this game, and this is coming from a person who participated in football. If the League suffers and eventually folds as a result, so be it. No game is worth a human life.