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NFL’s report on concussions evades the need to promote player safety

A New York Times investigative report found the National Football League’s concussion research to be more flawed than anyone had suspected. The league’s reaction? To go on the defensive.

The NFL’s self-serving lack of attention to the pervasive problem of concussions is deplorable.

Professional football players are lavishly paid, but too often in exchange for treatment as disposable gladiators. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive, degenerative disease linked to repeated concussions and other head injuries, is hardly worth the paycheck.

Several well-known former players, such as Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, accused the league of concealing the long-term danger of concussions and rushing injured players back onto the field. In 2013, the league agreed to a $765 million settlement of a lawsuit put forth by some retired players. But some former athletes complained it covered only a narrow range of maladies.

The Times investigation has found that the league’s concussion research derived from a committee formed in 1994, which issued a succession of research papers diminishing the danger of head injuries. The NFL has stood by the research, which purported to be based on a full accounting of all concussions diagnosed by team physicians from 1996 through 2001. The Times, citing confidential data obtained by the newspaper, showed that more than 100 diagnosed concussions were omitted from the studies, “including some severe injuries to stars like quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman.”

Upon questioning, the NFL explained the missing diagnosed cases, at more than 10 percent of the total, saying that “the clubs were not required to submit their data and not every club did.” The league acknowledged that fact could have been made more clear and insisted the missing cases were not intentional or an attempt “to alter or suppress the rate of concussions.”

The Times piece, while not accusing the NFL of being in league with the tobacco industry, does mention the comparison made by some retired players in the handling of health problems.

The NFL issued a statement about the Times article in which it said it was “contradicted by clear facts.” It also said the Times “published pages of innuendo and speculation.” The newspaper did a good job responding, point by point, to those claims.

Perhaps instead of reacting defensively, the league could implement a higher standard of transparency by issuing reports with all of the pertinent data. The NFL should also consider implementing safer standards on the field.

Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll has been at the forefront, releasing a video a few years ago on rugby-style tackling, which uses the shoulders to take down opponents while looking for a lower body target. The method caught the attention of several college programs.

It proves one point. There are ways to enjoy the sport while safeguarding players. That has to be the league’s goal.