About a year ago, the NFL became one of the largest funders of concussion research in the United States. It almost seemed like the league had begun to take head trauma seriously. It hasn’t.
Last September, the league launched its “Play Smart. Play Safe.” initiative, which began with a promise of $100 million from the league and all 32 team owners toward “independent medical research and engineering advancements.” That’s a lot of money! Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted at the time that “there is skepticism about our work in this area."
A report by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on Thursday showed that skepticism was right. The NFL has used the money to fund exactly one study so far, however, and it doesn’t involve football. The study is on horse jockeys, and it is being conducted in-house by researchers who appear to have already made up their minds about concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
The study is led by an Australian researcher who once described American coverage of CTE as "carry-on and hoo-hah" and a British doctor whose concussion presentations sometimes have included flippant jokes and video of tumbling jockeys set to slapstick music. At one presentation, the widow of a CTE victim, a former British soccer star, was so offended she stormed out of the room.
The fact that CTE is very real, and very serious, isn’t a question any more. Last July, a Boston University study found signs of CTE in 110 of the 111 brains of deceased former NFL players that had been donated for research. Even when accounting for a possibly biased sample — brains that had been donated were likely to have come from players who had been suspected of suffering from mental illness — the findings are alarming.
But 110 positives remain significant scientific evidence of an N.F.L. player’s risk of developing C.T.E., which can be diagnosed only after death. About 1,300 former players have died since the B.U. group began examining brains. So even if every one of the other 1,200 players had tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.
Even if the people running the jockey study weren’t seemingly predisposed to downplay the effects of head trauma, the fact that the NFL is supporting a study of jockeys is problematic. Football players, particularly those who play in the trenches, endure an impact every snap of every game they play for at least 16 games in 17 weeks during the NFL season. According to one concussion expert interviewed by ESPN, comparing a football player to a jockey would be like “comparing apples and pears.”
"With a jockey on a horse, if he comes off, there's a high chance of getting a concussion, but he's not impacting the brain hundreds of times in a race," said Dr. Willie Stewart, a neuropathologist at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. "If you have a rugby player, perhaps there's a lower instance of concussion, but there's a difference in brain impacts that are causing the repetitive subconcussive insults hundreds, maybe thousands of times a season."
The NFL has a history of supporting concussion research...but only when that research supports what it’d like to believe. It infamously gave $30 million to the National Institutes of Health in 2012, only to pull $16 million of it because it didn’t like the man leading the research. The NFL’s partnership with the NIH is now expiring with more than half of the pledge going unused.
The NFL is pouring a lot of money into technology — $60 million — but how much “technology” can aid the problem of head trauma is debatable at best. Helmets help reduce the impact of tackles, but they can only help so much. One biomedical engineering expert who consulted with the NFL, Joel Stitzel of the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, told ESPN that he feels like “there's diminishing returns on helmets.” When he suggested to the league that it look at subconcussive impacts, he was dismissed:
"I said, 'We feel like it's important to study long-term impacts: What are the long-term consequences of subconcussive impacts'" on the brain, Stitzel recalled in an interview. "And the answer was: 'That's not in the scope of what we are trying to evaluate.'"
The NFL’s approach to head trauma was already comical before Thursday’s report. It had conveniently left out more than 100 concussions from a database it used to downplay the frequency of head injuries. It relied on faulty data to claim that its Heads Up Football program worked, when in truth there was no correlation between the program and fewer concussions. And it relies on a concussion protocol that is woefully inadequate for the job it is tasked to do.
The fact that the first study conducted by the NFL into concussions is about jockeys is telling. The NFL has claimed it was simply bumbling before. Now it is even more clear that it simply doesn’t give a shit about its sport or the people who play it.