The National Football League long knew about the dangers of concussions and, for years, worked to mislead the public, according to a new book League of Denial, which compares the actions of the NFL to those of the tobacco industry. Excerpts of the book from ESPN investigative reporters and brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru appeared on ESPN and Sports Illustrated today, and the book will be fully released next Tuesday.
When the NFL settled a massive concussion lawsuit brought on by 4,500 current and former players last month, it did so without having to legally admit any wrongdoing. But whether the NFL admits it or not, the Fainaru brothers found much damning evidence that the sports giant lied and maneuvered its way out of taking action to stop concussions, and actively misled the public and players as to their dangers. This is the same book, it should be noted, whose information was being used by ESPN and PBS for a collaborative documentary. That is, until ESPN dropped out of the agreement, reportedly caving to NFL pressure to do so. A preview of the documentary can be seen on BuzzFeed Sports.
One of the key targets of the book is the 1994 Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee, which, as implied by its name, found concussions to be relatively minor injuries. But the board had little scientific expertise, as the Fainarus wrote via ESPN:
The MTBI Committee was run by a man who would become Tagliabue's personal physician, Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist and New York Jets doctor who had no previous experience in brain research.
Pellman would become the go-to concussion expert for the NFL, until he was later found to be falsifying his doctoral resume. The MTBI's conclusions were later disavowed by two of its own members. But not before the NFL utilized a jock-sniffing contact at Neurosurgery magazine to publish a series of concussion-denial studies despite its rejection during peer-review stage. One study came to a particularly and obviously egregious conclusion: "Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis," it read. A cursory glance of a regular fall Sunday would have quickly ruled that conclusion out.
The comparisons to Big Tobacco, which denied the links of smoking to heart and lung diseases for many years, are compelling. "The NFL's strategy seemed not unlike that of another powerful industry, the tobacco industry," the authors write, "which had responded to its own existential threat by underwriting questionable science through the creation of its own scientific research council and trying to silence anyone who contradicted it."
The NFL has taken steps in recent years to admit that concussions are a problem worth addressing. But, as the authors themselves note, "The story is far from over."
(Book cover via Amazon)