It's been a while since we heard from Pittsburgh Steelers team neurosurgeon and CTE naysayer Dr. Joseph Maroon. In a March appearance on the NFL Network, he was doing his best to convince viewers that the well established fact of long-term neurological damage among football players was "over-exaggerated." Maroon is back in the news this week after a study he co-authored failed to mention that he has a long-time, paid relationship with the Steelers and the NFL.
In February 2015, Maroon and five of his colleagues from the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center published a study in the multidisciplinary scientific journal PLOS ONE called "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Contact Sports: A Systematic Review of All Reported Pathological Cases." They failed to disclose the full extent of Maroon's 30-year relationship with the NFL and seven-year stint with the WWE. They issued a correction to the article's interests statement in June.
The authors also issued corrections for two statements made in the article relating to their review of literature related to CTE.
Maroon's CTE study argued that the only risk factor "consistently associated with CTE" was a history of mild traumatic brain injury. It also went on to say that their "review reveals significant limitations of the current CTE case reporting and questions the widespread existence of CTE in contact sports."
That's a slightly more clinical way of saying Maroon's most ridiculous talking point from that March appearance on his employer's television network:
"It's a rare phenomena. We have no idea the incidence. There are ... more injuries to kids falling off bikes, scooters, falling in playgrounds than there are in youth football. I think again, it's never been safer. Can we improve? Yes. We have to do better all the time to make it safer."
One of the corrections to the Maroon Six study was forced to note additional research, conducted after their review, including one study that found evidence of CTE in the brains of recent veterans exposed to blasts. You have to wonder how Maroon would compare the risks of combat with riding bikes and climbing on monkey bars.
This is by no means the first instance of a conflict of interest between the NFL and researchers working on their behalf waving off the long-term risk of brain trauma. Remember when former Jets team doctor Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist, was also head of the league's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee from 1994 until 2007? Pellman was still involved with the NFL as recently as 2013. In fact, this wasn't the first time Maroon has been called out for a conflict of interest with the league.
He and another colleague at the University of Pittsburgh developed the ImPACT system for assessing concussions in players, software they sell to NFL teams and other sports leagues and got called out for it in 2007.
The league is in the process of finalizing a settlement in the class action lawsuit filed by thousands of retired players claiming the NFL concealed the long-term neurological risks associated with the sport. A group of 90 former players is appealing that decision, and another 200 former players or their living relatives, including the family of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, have opted out of it in order to continue litigation.
One criticism of the settlement is that it overlooks CTE, including any future payments for players suffering from the disease's debilitating effects.
Rule changes and research grants with an eye toward the safety of players at least look like positive steps beyond the commissioner's usual spew of talking points. None of it matters as long as league employees are still hiding various conflicts of interest and pushing dubious science that seems designed to keep the NFL from having to acknowledge the extent of, or help pay for, a widespread health crisis among players.