clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NFL's all-inclusive concussion research left out at least 100 concussions

The league also leaned on the tobacco industry for advice, according to a report from the New York Times.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

For years, NFL players have accused the league of lying to them about the connection between football and head injuries. A new report provides further evidence that the players were right. According to an in-depth report from the New York Times, the NFL omitted more than 100 diagnosed concussions from its study on the issue nearly 20 years ago, thus deflating the concussion rate and making the sport appear safer than it actually was.

This report comes less than three years after the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players who accused league officials of covering up the risks of concussions. It was a monumental win for the players, one that former United States District Judge Layn Phillips, who supervised the negotiations between the two parties, labeled "a historic agreement that will make sure that former NFL players who need and deserve compensation will receive it."

There was, however, one area where the players had to concede: the league was not forced to admit liability nor acknowledge that it hid information from the players. The NFL had conducted its own research, which had downplayed the connection between football and head injuries. But according to the Times, that research -- led by Dr. Elliot Pellman, the physician for the Jets -- was tremendously flawed.

The Times found that most teams failed to report all of their players' concussions. Over all, at least 10 percent of head injuries diagnosed by team doctors were missing from the study, including two sustained by Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, who retired several years later after more concussions. Dr. Pellman, the Jets' physician, led the research and was the lead author on every paper.

The Times looked at injury and media reports from the time period studied -- 1996-2001 -- and found numerous examples of head injuries which subsequently failed to show up in the league's research. Several teams were listed by the NFL as having no concussions for years at at time.

The Cowboys, for example, do not have a single concussion for that six-year span even though public injury reports show Troy Aikman sustained four over that time period. The 49ers show no concussions from 1997-2000 even though injury reports have Steve Young sustaining two.

The Times also points out that the majority of the committee members appointed by the NFL in 1994 to study concussions were associated with league teams.

The Times reached out to the NFL about the missing data. Here was the league's response:

The N.F.L. said this week that the studies, in fact, "never purported" to include all concussions.

Teams were "not mandated" to participate, the league said, only "strongly encouraged." And some teams, a spokesman said, "did not take the additional steps of supplying the initial and/or follow-up forms." He did not explain why some teams had not included all concussions identified by medical personnel.

If it all sounds similar to how the tobacco industry handled itself when it came to dealing with public safety issues that is no coincidence. The NFL shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants with the tobacco industry, according to the report. The two groups corresponded frequently and the NFL looked to the tobacco industry for lobbying advice.

Preston Robert Tisch, co-owner of the Giants from 1991 until his death in 2005, was also a part owner of the cigarette company Lorillard and on the board of the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research. In 1992 Tisch connected Arthur J. Stevens, a lawyer and leading voice in the tobacco industry, and then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Stevens sent Tagliabue a letter referring him to two court cases alleging that the tobacco and asbestos industries had covered up the health risks of their products, but which the industries successfully fended off.

"Today's New York Times story on the National Football League is contradicted by clear facts that refute both the thesis of the story and each of its allegations," the NFL said in a detailed statement released Thursday. "As the Times itself states: 'The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco.' Despite that concession, the Times published pages of innuendo and speculation for a headline with no basis in fact."

In a series of tweets, the NYT objected to the NFL's statement:

The NFL released a lengthier response later Thursday, saying that the data the Times used was from a "preliminary" study and that the league has always maintained that more research was needed.

This report comes on the heels of the league publicly acknowledging for the first time the connection between football and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.