On March 24, the New York Times released a damning rundown of the NFL’s flawed concussion research, including the revelation that hundreds of concussions were not included in the NFL’s collaborative data and that the league took their denial tactics right out of the Big Tobacco playbook. The NFL responded with a 2,520-word rebuttal and accused the NYT of “false innuendo and sheer speculation.” The New York Times responded in kind with a point-by-point rebuttal of their rebuttal.
Perhaps it could have stopped there but the NFL upped the ante on Tuesday by demanding that the New York Times retract the article and including this sentence, which implies the threat of legal action:
“We also request that the Times’s reporters and editors who worked on this story preserve their notes, correspondence, emails, recordings and work papers and all other electronic and hard copy documents generated or received in connection with their work.”
The Times responded on Wednesday in a letter to the NFL, obtained by Politico, by saying that while the paper “has a policy of correcting factual errors as promptly as possible,” they find no factual errors in the story and stand behind their reporting.
The Times also calls out the fact that NFL has launched a radio advertising and PR campaign in the wake of the article, noting that “the NFL would now see fit to try to silence the public debate with legal threats is a disservice to its fans and, more generally, to the American people.”
The real corker is the final paragraph of the letter, which drops the mic on NFL attorney Brad Karp by denoting that his own law firm (Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrson) represented the Tobacco industry in a RICO case he referenced in the initial retraction request. In that letter Karp also referred to them as “perhaps [the] most odious industry in America history.” Ouch.
Times sports editor Jason Stallman also released a statement, via CBS Sports:
“We see no reason to retract anything.
The N.F.L. apparently objects to our reporting that the league had ties to the tobacco industry. But, as the article noted, a co-owner of the Giants, Preston R. Tisch, also partly owned a leading cigarette company, Lorillard, and was a board member of both the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research, two entities that played a central role in misusing science to hide the risks of cigarettes. Also, the N.F.L. and the tobacco industry shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants.
The N.F.L. also apparently objects to our reporting that the studies produced by the league’s concussion committee were more deeply flawed than previously understood. The league has always maintained that the studies were based on a data set that included every concussion that was diagnosed by a team doctor. In fact, our reporting showed that more than 100 such concussions — including some sustained by star players — were not included in the data set, resulting in inaccurate findings.”
Regarding the threat of litigation by the NFL, the Times seems more than willing to let the league take that as far as they’d like:
The N.F.L. has not found a single factual error in our reporting. We believe the letter, with its threat of legal action, is a clear attempt to silence the public discussion of the concussion issue.
This game of chicken continues and the NFL is sure to have some kind of response ready to go. Litigation seems like a tricky way to go for the league, considering all of the data and research being done on concussions, not to mention how it would open up their books for discovery. Chances are the NFL will continue to keep trying to win the PR war, which doesn’t seem to be going their way either.