“It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.”
They Call It Pro Football (1967)
NFL Films’ opening line from their 1967 semi-documentary has proved a disastrous prophecy. In 2012, 43-year old former pro football player Junior Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The despondent hard-hitting linebacker took aim ‘between the numbers’ for the last time. He made sure his brain was safely preserved for future study.
Player safety, and the reason for Seau’s decision (and other players before him) is the paramount issue confronting NFL’s decision makers.
Rule changes now protect the head. Neurologists patrol the sidelines ready to analyze woozy players. A ‘concussion protocol’ is automatic after a player gets his bell rung, and only medical personnel must determine if and when the player can resume activities.
Football is an American religion. Its games are a weekly narcotic for millions. Nine of the top ten most watched television shows in 2013 were NFL games. The NFL is a $10 billion industry with billionaire owners. The average NFL player salary earns almost $2 million. Commissioner Roger Goodell pulled in almost $40 million in compensation last year.
Football also includes 50,000 men who play in college and four million boys who play in youth leagues. It builds character, and has residual benefits to society. Empirical research shows that kids who play sports stay in school longer. As adults, they vote more often and earn more money. It probably has something to do with developing a competitive instinct and a desire for achievement.
But football is also not beyond litigation. A Colorado jury awarded $11.5 million to a boy who suffered a paralyzing injury at his high school football practice in 2008. Will such an award impact the decisions about football in other local or state jurisdictions? Even President Obama offered his opinion:
“If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
Thus, the line is drawn between the health of the player (and future litigation) versus football’s benefit to society. This is nothing new.
In 1905, 18 people died playing competitive football. Many college presidents wanted the vicious ‘blood sport’ eliminated. But another President, Teddy Roosevelt, felt strongly about the benefits of physical fitness and football’s competitiveness. Roosevelt saved football from extinction after assisting with rule changes, many which are followed today.
Only over the last decade has football’s “concussion crisis” become a national issue. Researchers connected to the Pittsburgh Steelers have studied it more than twenty years. The health concern between football and brain damage has even touched youth leagues. Cognitive baseline testing has become standard operating procedure for high schools and above.
In 1994, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee. It was formed to study concussions after three quarterbacks went down in one week. Tagliabue appointed New York Jets team doctor and rheumatologist Dr. Elliot Pellman as chairman, despite Pellman’s lacking any previous experience in brain science.
The Committee published 16 scientific papers of its findings on the relationship between concussions and football players in Neurosurgery. In none of those papers had the NFL ever recognized any link between head injuries suffered playing football and permanent brain damage. In fact, they had refuted and chastised independent scientific data that reveals links between the two.
So why, on August 29, 2013, did the National Football League agree to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit involving more than 4,500 players?
The players had claimed that the league covered up data on the harmful effects of concussions. One of the principal terms of the settlement is that the agreement “cannot be considered an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football.” Although medical research into football and long-term effects of head injuries is hardly conclusive, some data suggest a connection.
An answer can be found in the well-researched and condemning book written by two ESPN investigative reporters called League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth. Authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru methodically piece together the NFL maneuverings and cover-up of information on the correlation between football and brain trauma in NFL players, and their attempts to downplay such evidence.
The authors point to September 28, 2002 as the game-changer.
It was then that Nigerian-born Dr. Bennet Omalu makes a decision to preserve (fix) and later examine the brain of 50-year old and former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. Webster’s life had spiraled out of control the last few years. Omalu reasoned that such actions warranted further exploration. After examining Webster, Omalu found what is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which had only been found in boxers or jockeys, and known as dementia pugilistica. Webster was the first football player diagnosed with the disease.
Omalu’s findings made sense. Webster had a reputation as a hard-hitting never-say-die player over his 17-year career. He excelled at head coach Chuck Noll’s “Nutcracker” drill in practice when two players go one-on-one like head-butting rams.
Soon after he retired, Webster couldn’t retain thoughts and became easily confused. Towards the end he could only sleep after ‘tasing’ himself. He finally filed for a disability claim with the NFL Retirement Board in 1999. Even doctors chosen by the NFL had to agree that football was the reason for his mental disability and brain damage. He began to receive monthly payments. But the NFL, it was later discovered, never publicly admitted the findings.
This was the NFL’s first ‘smoking gun.’
In November, 2004, the MTBI committee published their 5th paper in Neurosurgery, and creates scientific controversy. It suggested that NFL players have evolved to a state where their brains are less susceptible to injury. In January, 2005, the committee’s next paper concluded that: ”Players who are concussed and return to the same game have fewer initial signs and symptoms than those removed from play. Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.”
In addition, the committee argues that its findings might apply to younger athletes, despite any data supporting such a conclusion.
Such statements by the MTBI Committee was a contradiction of the March 1997 published guidelines on concussions by the American Academy of Neurology, called Return to Play Guidelines. It stated that repetitive concussions can cause brain damage, and suggest that players be removed from the game if they lose consciousness or exhibit any concussion symptoms 15 minutes post-injury. (Interestingly, according to ESPN, in 2003 wide receiver Wayne Chrebet was knocked cold against the Giants. Dr. Elliott Pellman examined him and sent him back into the game.)
With each new paper the NFL Committee’s credibility becomes diminished. Statements made in a scientific journal without evidence is laughable.
In 2004, former Steeler Justin Strelczyk died in a fiery car crash at age 36 after complaining of depression and behaving erratically. In 2005, 45-year old former Steeler Terry Long commits suicide by drinking antifreeze. In 2006, former Eagle Andre Waters committed suicide. He was 44 years old. Dr. Omalu examined each brain, and found CTE.
In May, 2006, the MTBI Committee requested that a June 2005 paper in Neurosurgery by Dr. Bennet Omalu, on the scientific findings of CTE in Mike Webster, be retracted. This is instant career death to any doctor. “They insinuated I was not practicing medicine. I was practicing voodoo … voodoo,” Omalu told Frontline.
The NFL’s MTBI committee was now “starting to crack,” say the authors. They ”rushed out a series of new policies, and created the ‘88 Plan’ for players with dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS, or Parkinson’s disease. The NFL adopted mandatory neuropsychological testing.”
The NFL also reconfigured the MTBI committee. Dr. Pellman, whose resume was exposed as inaccurate two years earlier, was out. He was replaced by Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano, director of the Sports Biomechanics Lab at Wayne State University.
Who is Dr. Ira Casson?
According to the authors, he was “the NFL’s truest disbeliever.” He was one of the co-signers requesting that Omalu’s work be retracted. Yet his background included working with boxers. He knew about the effects of dementia and depression and the devastation boxing has on the brain. But he also didn’t think boxing should be banned: “A boxer ought to know what he’s getting into if he wants to go on and be a champion. He should know what he may be sacrificing. A doctor has to tell the boxer if he thinks the fighter should stop, but in the end it’s not really a medical decision. Society has to decide what we’re going to do about boxing.”
On May 14, 2007, Casson was interviewed by correspondent Bernie Goldberg on HBO’s RealSports. Casson was the new co-chair of the committee, and Goldberg wanted to get the NFL’s opinion on the connection between concussions and football:
The NFL’s version of ‘Dr. No’ was born.
Casson’s words (or lack of) would come back to haunt Commissioner Roger Goddell.
In June 2007, new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell needed positive spin for the NFL. Ex-players were dying in mysterious ways and their own published papers on concussions were dismissed by some in the brain research community. Goodell decided to call the first league-wide Concussion Summit. All evidence and research could be presented. Attendees included the NFL’s own doctors and also outside researchers (referred by the authors as The Dissenters). But Dr. Omalu was NOT invited.
Presenting Dr. Omalu’s evidence was Dr. Julian Bailes (Dissenter). Omalu’s evidence and conclusions were not taken seriously by Dr. Casson: “Anecdotes do not make scientifically valid evidence. I’m a man of science. I believe in empirically determined, scientifically valid evidence.”
Yet, the summit brought into question the validity of the NFL’s data.
The accusation by one Dissenter was that thousands of NFL baseline tests were excluded from Paper 6, which showed players recovered quickly from concussions. When Casson declared, “I’m a man of science,” he lost much credibility among his peers. He implied those with opposing views were not men of science. The summit marked a major direction changer for the NFL.
Continuing to downplay damage from concussions, in September 2007 the league released a ‘concussion pamphlet’ that said current research on the long-term impact of concussions is inconclusive: “Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly.”