Suppose you work for Phillip Morris. Er, Altria. Whatever. And suppose you're making a commercial, highlighting advances in cigarette filter technology. The theme is forever nicotine. The target audience is moms, kids, potential customers, anyone with a sneaking suspicion that smoking might be, you know, bad for them.
Anyway, you need celebrities. Familiar faces. Names viewers can trust. Like Walt Disney. He was a smoker. As was Paul Newman. And Peter Jennings. Thing is, all three men died of lung cancer. With that in mind, would you still include them -- well, actors portraying them, touched up with a little digital magic -- in your spot?
Congratulations. You're officially less cynical than the NFL.
During the Super Bowl, the league ran an advertisement about player safety. The ad wasn't new. It premiered last year. You've probably seen it. A kick return begins in Canton, Ohio, in 1906, moving up the field and forward through time, football's rules evolving, leather helmets becoming plastic, facemasks adding bars, sepia tones becoming vivid color. Ballcarrier Ollie Matson becomes Rick Upchurch. Upchurch becomes Mel Gray. Eventually, Devin Hester scores a touchdown, and Ray Lewis delivers the closing voiceover: "Here's to making the next century safer and more exciting. Forever forward. Forever football."
The unspoken message? Hey, don't worry about all this scary brain trauma stuff. Or feel guilty in any way. We'll tweak some rules. Build a better helmet. Maybe enlist NASA or something. Take care of players, just like we always have. Everything will be fine. Now and forever. Which is all well and good. Except for a nagging, inconvenient detail.
As Matt Crossman of Sporting News first pointed out, Gray is one of more than 4,000 former players currently suing the NFL over football-induced brain trauma, alleging that the league not only failed to warn athletes about the long-term dangers of repetitive blows to head, but also actively hid information about the threat to their mental and neurological health.
Upchurch is suing, too. For that matter, so is the family of Matson, a Hall of Fame player and Olympic medalist who died of complications from dementia in 2011. Last year, he was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer's that has been linked to absorbing repeated blows to the head. Scientists have found CTE in the brains of 34 former NFL players, including suicide victim Junior Seau; according to Nathan Fenno of the Washington Times, researchers at Boston University told Matson's children that their father's case was the most severe they had ever seen.
Matson's family filed suit last August. The NFL never bothered to edit its commercial. Forever forward.
This, in a nutshell, is the problem with the league's approach to brain trauma, past and present. Like the kickoff spot, it's dishonest. Conflicted. At odds with reality. More concerned with the health and well-being of the sport than the health and well-being of the people who play it. An exercise in damage control, liability reduction and manipulating public perception, rife with revisionist history and intelligence-insulting spin.
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Has the NFL improved its brain safety policies since, say, 2008? Yes. No question. Is that actually saying much? No. Particularly not in context. Not with a modicum of historical understanding, the kind you won't get from a slick, 30-second Super Bowl spot.
Take league commissioner Roger Goodell. Appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation" last Sunday , he once again denied that the NFL ever attempted to hide the long-term effects of head injuries from players or the public. No surprise there. Such is the party line. The league's boilerplate statement on the concussion lawsuits reads: the NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit. Predictably, Goodell also refused to confirm whether the no s—t link between football and long-term neurological problems even exists -- instead stating "we're gonna let the medical individuals make those points" -- yet still managed to tout the league as a leader in studying brain damage, citing a concussion committee the NFL established in 1994 as a "way to advance science."
With apologies to the NFL communications intern charged with faxing and/or emailing the same brain trauma statement over and over again, allegations that the league sought to mislead players, cover up the problem and generally keep the football universe's collective head stuck in the sand do have merit. Lots of merit, actually. Maybe not in a legal sense, inside a courtroom, where culpability is determined by billable hours and the fate of the free world can hang on the semantics of what "is" is. But definitely in a moral sense. And definitely in a common sense sense. Consider the facts. Not the facts that may be uncovered during a future discovery process, assuming the concussion lawsuits progress to that point. Just the facts we know right now. The stuff already in the public domain. The stuff I -- and others -- already have written about.
The NFL's aforementioned concussion committee, bravely advancing neurological science? Funny thing about that: for more than a decade, the committee did the opposite. Medical research dating back to the 1920s indicates that absorbing multiple blows to the head that are not allowed to properly heal can result in degenerative and irreversible cognitive impairment -- known in boxing as "punch drunkenness." Meanwhile, football experience consisting of, say, a single week of practice indicates that absorbing multiple blows to the head is, in fact, part of what makes football different from chess.
But never mind that. The committee was on the case. Here's then-chair and New York Jets team doctor Elliot Pellman in 1994, talking about getting "dinged," trying very hard not to sound like Dr. Nick Riviera:
"Veterans clear more quickly than rookies ... they can unscramble their brains a little faster, maybe because they're not afraid after being dinged. A rookie won't know what's happened to him and will be a little panicky. The veterans almost expect the dings. You have to watch them, though, because vets will try to fool you. They memorize the answers. They'll run off the field staring at the scoreboard."
In 1997, the American Academy of Neurology established return-to-play guidelines for concussed athletes, recommending that players who lose consciousness be kept off the field for at least one week. The NFL rejected the recommendation. In 2003, Pellman appeared on HBO's "Inside the NFL" and dismissed a study linking multiple concussions with depression among former players; the next year, his committee wrote that there was "no evidence" that concussions produced "permanent or cumulative" damage.
Pellman, it should be noted, was a rheumatologist. Not a neurologist. A rheumatologist. In biographical material, he claimed he had a medical degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook; according to the New York Times, he actually attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico. The same year Pellman appeared on HBO, he also shared the following sideline exchange with concussed Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, a scene captured by ESPN the Magazine writer Peter Keating:
"There's going to be some controversy about you going back to play." Elliot Pellman looks Wayne Chrebet in the eye in the fourth quarter of a tight game, Jets vs. Giants on Nov. 2, 2003, at the Meadowlands.
A knee to the back of the head knocked Chrebet stone-cold unconscious a quarter earlier, and now the Jets' team doctor is putting the wideout through a series of mental tests. Pellman knows Chrebet has suffered a concussion, but the player is performing adequately on standard memory exercises.
"This is very important for you," the portly physician tells the local hero, as was later reported in the New York Daily News. "This is very important for your career."
Then he asks, "Are you okay?"
When Chrebet replies, "I'm fine," Pellman sends him back in.
In 2005, Pellman's committee published a paper that concluded, in part, that "return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season." The next year, the committee published a summary of its work-to-date, proclaiming that concussions in professional football "are not serious injuries." (Note: not a misprint).
This flew in the face of independent research indicating that multiple concussions significantly increased the likelihood of long-term cognitive damage, including a landmark 2005 study of over 2,550 former players which found that individuals who had suffered three or more concussions during their pro careers were five times more likely than retirees without a history of concussions to be diagnosed with a loss of brain function affecting memory, thinking, language, judgment and behavior. (Other than that, Ms. Lincoln, how did you like the play?). Concussion committee member Mark Lovell downplayed those findings, however, and a subsequent 2007 face-to-face meeting between the committee and independent researchers who sharply criticized the committee's shoddy scientific methodology led the NFL to release a player pamphlet that, in part, read:
… Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems ... it is important to understand that there is no magic number for how many concussions is too many … research is currently underway to determine if there are any long-term effects of concussion in NFL athletes ...
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When neuropathologist Bennet Omalu dissected the brain tissue of deceased former NFL players, including Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, and published a groundbreaking article in the peer-reviewed journal Neurology concluding that football-induced head trauma -- both concussions and sub-concussive blows -- can lead to CTE, Pellman and two other committee members wrote a letter to the journal, demanding a retraction. According to a damning 2009 GQ magazine article written by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the NFL repeatedly dismissed Omalu before sending an independent expert to examine his work in 2008. The expert, neuropathologist Peter Davies, was dubious. Right until he saw Omalu's brain tissue samples. "I did not think there was anything there," Davies told the magazine. "But when I looked at the stuff, he was absolutely right. I was wrong to be skeptical." So what happened next? The way GQ tells it, the league declined to make Davies' report public. It never spoke to Omalu again.
Still, that wasn't the low point. Not quite. The single most absurd moment in the committee's long reign of error came in 2007, when co-chair Ira Casson -- an actual neurologist! -- was interviewed by Bernard Goldberg of HBO's "Real Sports," an exchange I've mentioned before:
Goldberg: Is there any evidence, as far as you're concerned, that links multiple head injuries among pro football players with depression?
Goldberg: With dementia?
Goldberg: With early onset of Alzheimer's?
Goldberg: Is there any evidence as of today that links multiple head injuries with any long-term problem like that?
Casson: In NFL players?
Was the NFL simply clueless? An innocent victim of a mismanaged concussion committee? Doubtful. As ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and PBS' "Frontline" reported last year, the league's retirement board awarded disability payments to at least three former players after concluding that football caused their crippling brain injuries -- payments that were made during the late 1990s and 2000s, the same period the NFL committee was blithely denying any link between football and long-term cognitive impairment.
Though the league maintains the retirement board is an independent body, the payments indicate that: (a) the NFL likely knew something; (b) the committee's seeming ineptitude may have been intentional, a way to sidestep potential liability in future brain damage claims and lawsuits. How so? As leading brain scientist told ESPN's Keating, the NFL may have been "basically trying to prepare a defense for when one of these players sues ... they are trying to say that what's done in the NFL is OK because in their studies, it doesn't look like bad things are happening from concussions." Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) agrees. A trial attorney by training, she grilled Goodell during 2008 Capitol Hill hearings on football brain trauma; when I spoke to her last year, she said the league's pattern of obfuscation and denial looked all too familiar.
"[The NFL's] actions smacked of them knowing it was a very serious problem," Sanchez told me. "And them trying to deny it and cover it up with very vague-sounding and un-alarming information, because, let's face it, there's a heck of a lot of money at stake. If they could deny and delay anybody putting this together, then they could avoid being held liable for these former players suffering these very severe aftereffects.
"It reminded me of the tobacco industry, who knew for years and years that smoking wasn't good for you but kept denying it."
Therein lies the rub. Or at least the bitter irony. By spinning and dissembling -- by denying the obvious and ducking responsibility; by aping big tobacco, right down to hiring some of the same defense lawyers; by whistling past brain trauma the way the fossil fuel industry has whistled past global warming -- the NFL has made itself more liable, not less. Only I'm not sure the league realizes their mistake. I'm not sure they understand that their current strategy is, as Bob Costas puts it, unsustainable. Damage control isn't the solution. It's part of the problem, a losing defensive crouch, preventing the NFL from fully addressing a concussion crisis that may or may not be resolvable, yet still deserves an honest, open attempt.
When Deion Sanders says on NFL Network that he doesn't "buy all these guys coming back with these concussions … half these guys are trying to make money off the deal … I wish they'd be honest and tell the truth because it's keeping kids away from our game," Goodell could levy a fine. Or maybe pretend to be as upset as he was with BountyGate. When CBS announcer Jim Nantz cites an imaginary statistic that women's soccer players are 2.5 times more likely to get a concussion than college football players, the NFL's new-and-improved concussion committee could provide accurate numbers. When the NFLPA donates $100 million to a longitudinal study of player health, the league could follow suit, and give even more money to: (a) actual brain research; (b) taking care of former players who are suffering right now. When concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu -- a senior advisor to the NFL's new committee -- says that children under age 14 shouldn't play tackle football because their immature bodies and developing brains are particularly vulnerable to injury, the league could concur, and perhaps even lead the way, signaling to concerned parents and a confused public that a multibillion-dollar industry cares about something beyond its public image and publicly-subsidized bottom line.
Instead, the NFL cuts more Super Bowl commercials. Commercials that aired last week. Feel-good marketing propaganda that wouldn't be out of place in a political campaign, celebrating the glories of the Pee-Wee game, where scientists have recorded 7 and 8-year-olds hitting each other in the head with as much physical force as college athletes. Forever forward. Forever football. Forever CTE.
And speaking of Super Bowl spots -- not to mention neurological disease -- the ad featuring Matson apparently has been pulled from the league's website. It reportedly was titled "NFL Evolution: Protecting the Game." Not the players. The game. What else do you need to know?