Head Hunters: How The NFL Actively Ignores Concussions

Despite the title traditionally going to baseball, football really is America’s game. The start of the NFL season is right around the corner. But just when everyone’s ready to get excited, the league’s casting a shadow over the game.

What can bring down the most powerful sports league in the States? Concussions.

The NFL has always been pretty bad when it comes to dealing with concussions and for the most part, fans have come to accept it. Football’s an inherently dangerous game and it’s not like anyone’s actively trying to hurt the players. But last week, ESPN pulled out of their collaboration with PBS called Frontline: League of Denial, which would reportedly expose unprecedented evidence of brain damage in NFL players and the league’s refusal to admit the issue.

And when you thought that couldn’t get any worse, it did. On Thursday, the NFL and over 4000 retired players who were seeking compensation for their concussions and concussion-related symptoms settled out of court for a relatively paltry sum. But that’s not all. We’ll break down the NFL’s relationship with concussions and the recent legal decision below.

Just for thoroughness, we’re going to start all the way from the beginning. American football began around 1860; the first National Football League formed in 1920 and 1970’s NFL-AFL merger gave us more or less the league we know today.

For that entire time, concussions were occurring. Medical professionals knew something was happening, but for the most part injuries were written off as simply being shaken-up or punch drunk, seeing stars, or several other harmless-sounding euphemisms.  It was established as early as the 50’s that concussions could cause brain damage. The NFL took its first official action in 1994 when then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed Dr. Elliot Pellman to lead the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee.

At the time, Pellman was a team doctor for the New York Jets and spent the next several years down-playing the dangers of concussions. Since then, we’ve learned he got his medical degree in Guadalajara, Mexico and advised the Jets to put a “concussion clause” in receiver Wayne Chrebet’s (who Pellman cleared to continue playing after he was knocked unconscious in a game) contract allowing the team to significant his salary if frequent head injuries left him unable to play. Pellman resigned under pressure in 2007, but still worked for the NFL in a mysterious “medical director” capacity as of at least 2012.

The NFL’s concussion efforts continued to plod along, repeatedly explaining that concussions weren’t really that big of a deal.  In the summer of 2011, three hockey players (Rick Rypein, Derek Boogaard, and Wade Belak) who were known for their pugilistic abilities and consequently suffered from more than their share of head injuries died.

The next summer, one of the NFL’s own unfortunately joined them. Junior Seau, who was one of the 90’s best linebackers, shot himself in the chest. A study of his brain revealed he suffered from Chronic traumatic encephalopathy , a degenerative brain disease.

Goodell’s hand was forced. He outlawed high hits, moved the kickoff starting point back (while it may seem unlikely, kickoffs are the one of the most dangerous plays because all 22 players are running at full speed towards each other), and generally acknowledged the NFL had to change its ‘macho, I’m going to lay you out and stand over your unconscious body’ culture.
Too bad that nothing’s actually changed. Last fall, Obama said he wouldn’t let his hypothetical son play football and of course, Goodell said his son will put a helmet and pads on one day (the NYU community’s opinion was divided). Players are still getting concussed.

PBS and ESPN began to collaborate on the Frontline piece; for the most part it looked to expose what the NFL would not. Players were anxious to share their stories and two of ESPN’s brightest (but relatively unknown) investigative minds, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada began working on the project before the collaboration even became official.

Let’s just think about that logically for a moment. The most powerful sports media entity and an educational broadcasting company were working together. Two respected investigative reporters with significant clout were on the case. Affected players wanted to get their perspective out there. Something was going to blow up.

Understandably, the NFL wasn’t too excited. They told league doctors they didn’t have to cooperate with Frontline (although they were welcome, likely in word only, to speak to the documentary team if they chose to.) Then it appears they did the only thing they could: throw their weight around and force ESPN to back out.

We can’t be 100% sure the NFL or a corporate higher-up forced ESPN’s hand, but logically it makes sense. ESPN cited a lack of editorial control as the reason to back out, but they should have known that from early in the process. Also, it’s not like ESPN is ceasing all concussion-related work period. They’ve done plenty of good reporting, especially the recent Outside the Lines segment examining how Pellman managed to stay involved with the NFL even after being discredited. Seems kind of odd that they acknowledge concussions are an issue, do their own reporting, and then pull their affiliation from a documentary which is assumably close to done (it’s set to air October 8th)?

Then on Thursday, it was announced that the NFL and roughly 4,500 retired players reached an out of court settlement for $765 million. To save you the math, that works out to roughly $170,000 per player (50% will be paid in the next three years and the rest will be spread over the following 17). $10 million will go towards various research and safety measures.

While I agree that the players who literally sacrificed their health to make the NFL what it is today probably deserve more money, I’m not going to get into the “the NFL is putting a price on a human brain” school of thought. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of lawsuits; they award money for tragedies, because there’s really no other way to attempt to compensate for a death or injury. It’s not the best system, but the league didn’t create it.

The two unsettling parts come further down in the settlement. First, by avoiding court, the NFL doesn’t have to submit or reveal any evidence. Since one of the biggest claims against the league is that they ignore the concussion issue, this flies directly in the face of any progress. Secondly and further driving home that point, the settlement does not acknowledge in any way that the NFL is liable for the players injuries or that the injuries are even related to playing football. I guess over 4,000 former players all got really unlucky and were just predetermined to come down with cognitive brain issues. Either that or they all slipped on banana peels and hit their heads.

I don’t expect concussions to be completely eliminated from football; if anything I agree with most fans who think some safety measures have even gone too far. It’s another thing, though, to refuse to take meaningful forward progress or even admit that football is inherently dangerous. We all know it is. As cliché as it sounds, it’s OK that the NFL didn’t have the best history with concussions. The past is the past. If they’d be willing to step up and say, “We messed up, we’re sorry, and we’ll do our best to legitimately fix the issues,” I’d be more than content. A league that thrives on macho culture should have no problem with that.

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