The most infamous rheumatologist in all of sports is out as the NFL's chief medical officer. Dr. Elliot Pellman has agreed to retire, commissioner Roger Goodell announced in a memo sent to all 32 teams on Wednesday. It's cited as a move to help rebuild trust with the players, cutting ties with the former head of the league's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and the point man for denying the links between head trauma and long-term neurological disease like CTE that's caused a health crisis among retired NFL players.
"As we add additional full-time medical resources to our team, it is important to recognize and express our gratitude to Dr. Elliot Pellman, who is retiring after nearly 30 years of service, first to the New York Jets and then to the NFL," Goodell said in the memo. "We thank Dr. Pellman for his dedicated service to the game and for his many contributions to the NFL and our clubs, and appreciate his willingness to aid in this transition over the next few months."
In December, a league official confirmed to Deadspin that Pellman played "a useful administrative role" in his position and was directly involved with the NFL's in-game concussion spotters. Leaving him in that role undercut the league's claims that they were working to make the game safer. It wasn't sustainable to keep Pellman on the payroll, and it's a shock that it took this long to exile him.
* * *
Once the team doctor for the New York Jets, Pellman was appointed to the MTBI committee in 2003 by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was also Pellman's patient. During that time he was a leading figure in the league's effort to deny the health impact of concussions and brain injuries on players. (ESPN's Outside the Lines covered Pellman and his role with the league more in-depth as part of their reporting on the concussion crisis).
He was a co-author on a 2003 study that said concussed players were better off going back into the game rather than being removed from it.
"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."
His role in pushing back against assertions that head trauma led to CTE and other long-term neurological disease made him a central figure in the class action lawsuit by former players -- settled in Aug. 2015. Pellman gained even more public notoriety thanks to the film Concussion, the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Pellman was played by Paul Riser.
He stepped down as the MTBI committee chair in 2007, but remained on the committee even after the league publicly changed course on player safety, instituting rule changes designed to cut down on head injuries.
Pellman was also an advisor to Major League Baseball and the NHL's New York Islanders.
* * *
It took a massive lawsuit, a Congressional inquiry and lots of bad press, but the NFL has since softened its stance on the issue, gradually. This spring, NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller became the first league official to acknowledge the link between football and CTE. His stance made it even harder to reconcile keeping Pellman on the payroll, and it looks like the NFL finally understood the contradiction.
These are only steps, positive ones, but only the first of many the NFL has to take to rebuild the damage caused by Pellman and his ilk, many of whom are still affiliated with the league and downplaying the impact on player health.