Roger Goodell and the NFL have been making headlines in recent days for saying that an admission by Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, that there was “certainly” a link between football-related head trauma and C.T.E. was consistent with the league’s position over the years. That’s a bit of revisionist history considering the league denied any connection between the sport and the brain injuries for years and has only recently admitted that there may be one.
Part of the reason the NFL has changed its stance from denial to “well maybe” is because of a series of league-funded studies between 1996 and 2001 that seemed to downplay the concussion risks associated with playing football.
The New York Times dug into those studies recently and found that while the studies diagnosed 887 individual concussion cases, more than 100 other concussions (roughly ten percent of the overall number) that were reported by teams were never included in the database. As such, the NFL was able to call on data that was, at-best, incorrect, and at-worst, fixed to look better on behalf of the league.
After The Times asked the league about the missing diagnosed cases — more than 10 percent of the total — officials acknowledged that “the clubs were not required to submit their data and not every club did.” That should have been made clearer, the league said in a statement, adding that the missing cases were not part of an attempt “to alter or suppress the rate of concussions.”
One member of the concussion committee, Dr. Joseph Waeckerle, said he was unaware of the omissions. But he added: “If somebody made a human error or somebody assumed the data was absolutely correct and didn’t question it, well, we screwed up. If we found it wasn’t accurate and still used it, that’s not a screw-up; that’s a lie.”
The study did not include concussions that were recorded on behalf of stars like Steve Young and Troy Aikman. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys did not record one concussion whatsoever according to the study. For the record, Troy Aikman was diagnosed with a concussion four separate times on team injury reports between 1997 and 2000.
According to the Times, it also remains unclear why the NFL, the epidemiologist in charge of ensuring accurate data collection, and the editor of the medical journal that published it did not question the results at the time.
The NFL has released a statement regarding the story and they stand their ground on the validity of their numbers and actions, including the acknowledgment by many players involved in the $765 million settlement in 2013 that the league was mimicking Big Tobacco’s tactics when denying that smoking causes cancer.
Today’s New York Times story on the National Football League is contradicted by clear facts that refute both the thesis of the story and each of its allegations. As the Times itself states: “The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco.” Despite that concession, the Times published pages of innuendo and speculation for a headline with no basis in fact.
The Times’ sensationalized story is further refuted by the NFL’s ongoing commitment on the issue of player health and safety – notably, to the support of research, including that of our most vocal critics, on the long-term effects of concussions in all sports, and to change our game in an effort to make the sport of football as safe as it can be. We have committed tens of millions of dollars to fund independent research, made 42 changes to our rulebook since 2002 to make the game safer, and have advanced concussion awareness and safer tackling at all levels of the sport. And we provide a host of benefit programs which, together with the proposed settlement of our players’ concussion litigation, will ensure that our retired players are properly cared for in the future.
The Times quickly refuted the NFL’s claims in a series of tweets:
It’s amazing what a little fact-checking can turn up, not to mention how it reveals what little fact-checking so many organizations are willing to do when it doesn’t benefit them.