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NFL puts profits over its players

Kevin Turner, a hard-driving fullback for the Patriots and Eagles in the 1990s, died last Thursday of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Turner lacks the name recognition of the disease’s most famous victim, Lou Gehrig, but he will be remembered among NFL players as the lead plaintiff and vocal advocate in the concussion lawsuit that was filed against the league on behalf of more than 5,000 former players.

In a bitter irony, Turner died on the very day the New York Times published the results of an investigation that found the NFL’s concussion research conducted from 1996-2001 was “more flawed than previously known.”

The Times cited confidential data that showed the league’s research committee omitted more than 100 concussions from its research – involving such stars as Troy Aikman and Steve Young – and spent more than a decade defending those results as evidence that concussions weren’t as big a problem as skeptics believed.

The NFL settled the suit with its former players for $765 million in 2013. Turner pushed the players to approve it, citing the urgent needs of many ailing ex-players. But there were many former players who felt the settlement was insufficient – a drop in the pocket, some claimed.

In light of the Times report, it’s clear why the NFL was so eager to buy its way out of the concussion mess, and why some ex-players felt the league got off easy. The Times data is just the latest evidence of the NFL’s attempt to minimize the impacts of head trauma on its players.

For 13 years, the NFL waved this flawed report to support their denial of a link to brain damage, at a time when they tried to bully and discredit neurosurgeons (most notably, Dr. Bennet Omalu, subject of the movie, “Concussion”) who were trying to prove otherwise.

The NFL went into attack mode after the Times story broke, taking out ads on the newspaper’s website and issuing a 2,500-word response that accused the Times of acting on “false innuendo and sheer speculation” and contradicting the facts to serve it own “predetermined narrative.”

The NFL did what you would expect from the world’s most powerful sports entity in a crisis: Strike back, defend the almighty shield, accuse the best newspaper on the planet of twisting facts and engaging in a witch hunt.

“Basically, the worst way to handle a crisis is to deny things, cover it up, dissemble what the facts are,” said Steve Bell, senior partner and director of crisis management for Eric Mower + Associates. “It just prolongs the crisis, which is exactly what the NFL has been doing for years.”

“I think that concussions are to the NFL what steroids are to baseball,” Bell said. “They need a Mitchell Commission, an independent, credible investigation of the whole thing.”

The NFL has made significant strides on the issue, as they made clear in the rebuttal. The league has changed rules in the name of player safety, tightened its concussion protocol, and turned up the PR apparatus to expand awareness and assure America’s parents that football is OK for the kids.

But they had to be led kicking and screaming along the way, as scientific discoveries made it impossible to be the “League of Denial.”

Sorry, if it’s a choice between the Times and the NFL, it’s not a tough call. Alan Schwarz, one of the authors of the story, has been the driving force in media on concussions for well over a decade. The league has lied and denied and been a servant to violence and profit.

Good PR is everything to the NFL. Their biggest objection to the Times story isn’t the data itself, but the suggestion is that the league handled the concussion crisis in the same way the tobacco industry fought off mounting scientific evidence that cigarette smoking caused cancer.

The Times investigation found that the NFL and Big Tobacco had a chummy relationship through the year, which involved using the same lawyers, lobbyists and consultants. This doesn’t prove the NFL used the tobacco playbook, but it’s a curious connection, to say the least.

In 1997, the league hired Dorothy C. Mitchell, who had been a defense lawyer for the Tobacco Institute earlier in her career, to advise the concussion committee. The committee was led by Dr. Elliott Pellman, a team doctor who was a rheumatologist with no background in brain research.

The NFL denied in its response to the Times that it had used Mitchell because of her experience with the tobacco industry. In fact, they said they hadn’t even been aware of the connection. I’m surprised they didn’t say “generally aware,” as they did when talking about Tom Brady deflating footballs.

The Times pointed out that it wasn’t comparing smoking to football. The devastation from cigarettes is far more profound. The parallel was in how the two industries dealt with public concern. It’s no shock that the NFL would seek advice on how to keep the hounds at bay and defend the shield.

“In 1964, the Surgeon General comes out and says, ‘Smoking causes cancer,’ and they spent 30 years denying it,” Bell said. “It’s the same thing here. If you continue to collide with someone at full speed, protected or not, you’re going to injure your head.

“That’s not something that anyone who’s sensible would dispute. The key is that there’s billions of dollars involved with maintaining the game.”

Bell said that as long as the money rolls in, the NFL will keep kicking the crisis down the road. While fewer kids are playing football, there’s no evidence that concussions are hurting the product. Playoff ratings were up. The cost of a Super Bowl ad continues to soar. In the big picture, paying close to a billion to damaged former players is a small price to pay.

Kevin Turner, who was convinced that multiple concussions led to his ALS, is collateral damage, like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson and Mike Webster before him. Like big tobacco, the NFL wipes its hands, collects the profits, and pretends it wasn’t aware of the risks all along.


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