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The NFL would rather look stupid than evil

It's getting harder and harder to take the NFL at its word.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Times reported last week that at least 100 concussions were omitted from the database that an NFL committee used to downplay the dangers of head injuries. The missing concussions accounted for more than 10 percent of the total cases that the NFL said occurred from 1996 through 2001. The incomplete data was used in peer-reviewed studies underestimating the frequency and severity of concussions among NFL players.

One committee member said he was unaware of the omissions, telling the Times, "If somebody made a human error or somebody assumed the data was absolutely correct and didn’t question it, well, we screwed up. If we found it wasn’t accurate and still used it, that’s not a screw-up; that’s a lie."

These are the positions that the NFL is navigating now, and it'd much rather that you believe that it screwed up than lied. To that end, it released a pair of lengthy statements in response then, Tuesday, sent a letter to the Times demanding a retraction and threatening a lawsuit without explicitly saying so.

The core of the NFL's argument against the Times is two-fold: That the Times drew up a tenuous connection between the league and the tobacco industry, and that the studies the league used to bolster its position on concussions were never meant to be comprehensive in the first place -- that they were always flawed.

The connection to Big Tobacco arguably felt forced, but the NFL's case for defamation seems weak. Its latter stance is more interesting. The NFL is trying to make itself out as hapless with regards to concussion research. The alternative would be that the league was purposely deceitful, and that would be unforgivable.

The NFL has the benefit of plausible doubt, but the Times report highlights what has become a bad trend. This isn't the first time that the NFL has relied on shoddy research to bolster a convenient version of the truth. When it has come to painkillers, post-career benefits and football's link to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the NFL's responses have been slow, underwhelming and self-serving, enough to question whether its ignorance really isn't willful.*


The league's outward stance on CTE only recently (but perhaps only seemingly) evolved when an official admitted in front of a Congress committee that -- "certainly yes" -- there is a link between football and the neurodegenerative disease. Until that point, the league had been adamant that not enough information was known about CTE, and couldn't be known until such a time when the disease could be diagnosed in living players.

The NFL donated $30 million -- its largest donation ever! -- to the National Institute of Health for research on concussions and brain health, but in one instance it blocked the money from going to a researcher it doesn't like. As Outside the Lines reported in February, a much larger portion of the league's largess has been given to researchers with direct links to the NFL.

When it has allowed money to trickle out to independent research, it has largely ignored the results. Dr. Ann McKee led a study at Boston University that found evidence of CTE in 90 of 94 former players, which she said strongly suggests that the sport is a cause. Yet the week before Super Bowl 50, a member of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee again denied the connection. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said "there's risk in sitting on the couch" when asked about the dangers of the sport he oversees.

The league isn't wrong when it says there isn't 100 percent certainty that football causes CTE, nor that the disease is responsible for the mental health problems that players suffer after their careers. It's fairly certain that football often creates brain issues later in life, however. One study found that former players who had three or more concussions during their careers were three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than the general population. The fact that so many deceased players who suffered from depression also had CTE suggests a correlation between the two.

The NFL's foot-dragging, even by incompetence, has been helpful for its own sake as it negotiated a $1 billion settlement to former players who filed a class action suit in 2012. Players objected that certain symptoms associated with CTE were excluded from the settlement, and that it doesn't compensate players who may suffer from the disease in the future.

The NFL also wants its stars to stay on the field. That means making sure that more budding players like former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland don't leave the game, but also that those player feel good enough, week to week, to suit up. NFL teams have been lax towards the drugs their players put in their bodies, or worse. The Washington Post surveyed 500 ex-players and found that one in four felt pressured by team doctors to take medication that he was uncomfortable with.

Again, the NFL addressed the problem with shoddy oversight. Teams must submit annual pill audits to the league reporting every dosage in order to comply with federal regulations, but significant breaches have occurred as when Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was caught on camera in 2009 sneaking into the trainer's office, unlocking a medical cabinet and removing pills. In a 2014 lawsuit, former players Rex Hadnot and Scott Fujita, who played for multiple teams, said that team trainers distributed painkillers while traveling -- a violation of federal law. Fujita said that roughly just one third of what he was given was ever noted in his medical records.

Trainers continue to prescribe painkillers with negative long-term side effects that are, at best, still unknown. Cortisone and Toradol are, thankfully, not addictive, but Cortisone may slow healing and Toradol, banned in many European countries, is associated with internal bleeding and kidney problems. The NFL's own commissioned task force made a series of recommendations concerning the use of Toradol -- including that it not be mixed with other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Aspirin, or used unless a player is on the injury report -- but stopped short of creating any rules or incentives to curb its use.

With the NFL constantly catching up to the best practices for long-term player health, it's no surprise that post-NFL career programs have left some players underserviced. Vice Sports' Battle for Benefits series documented the issues that retired players face, from pensions that aren't rising at the same rate as league revenues to the mountains of bureaucracy that must surmounted to obtain proper healthcare. Part of the problem is that the NFL doesn't really fund many of these programs at all -- the players do. Via Vice:

The "players' share" of league revenue, roughly 48 percent of the NFL's $10 billion pie, includes more than just player salaries and those hefty contracts reported by Adam Schefter every offseason. It also includes player benefits, including their health care, pension and disability benefits, worker's compensation insurance, 49 percent of the Legacy benefit, and dozens of the post-career benefits the league touts. This creates a fundamental tension between many player benefits and current player salaries: more for one, less for the other.

On Tuesday, the NFL reacted strongly to the Times report -- a sign, perhaps, of things to come under Joe Lockhart, the league's new executive VP of communications. But in regards to the missing concussions, the NFL mostly quibbled with the Times' insistence that the league had mandated responses from its teams. It didn't address the implication of the bad data. By omission, the league admitted that it had been misleading the public and its players all along.

More importantly, the NFL found itself once again in a position of being reactive. By failing so often to be proactive the league is becoming harder to take at its word. The NFL can make the case for its ignorance, and it can wield its PR team more readily than ever before. It can't make the case for its virtuosity, however, and it's not even trying.

*DeflateGate is the ultimate of example of the NFL junk science, and may be forever so. I hesitated to mention it even in the hushed script of a footnote, lest mentioning it too prominently would stir it up like dirt from a river bed and muddy the conversation. The NFL picked a fight it shouldn't have, and couldn't back down when it felt it had been challenged.It contorted the Ideal Gas Law to its position, but the fight (at least, initially) seemed to have less to do with exercising power over players and more with owners who wanted to give a particular owner what they felt was his comeuppance. There, we talked about DeflateGate.