Is Big Football the New Big Tobacco?

Two journalists claim that the NFL tried to bury research showing just how dangerous concussions are.

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A new documentary investigates the NFL’s concussion problem.

Both Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine ran excerpts today of a soon-to-be-released book called "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth," by journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. The duo writes that the NFL not only ignored evidence showing that concussions are extremely detrimental to the long-term health of players, but that the league engaged in a campaign to hide such research and worked to keep the public unaware of the true damage concussions could cause.

In fact, the two writers pull out a serious comparison, likening America's most popular sports league to Big Tobacco (emphasis mine):

What the researchers were saying was that the essence of football – the unavoidable head banging that occurs on every play, like a woodpecker jackhammering at a tree – can unleash a cascading series of neurological events that in the end strangles your brain, leaving you unrecognizable.

The researchers who made this discovery – you could count them on one hand – thought NFL executives would embrace their findings, if only to make their product safer. That is not what happened. Instead, the league used its economic, political and media power to attack pioneering research and try to replace it with its own. … The NFL's strategy seemed not unlike that of another powerful industry, the tobacco industry, which had responded to its own existential threat by underwriting questionable science through the creation of its own scientific research council and trying to silence anyone who contradicted it.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The lengths to which the NFL went, according to the writers, were extreme, including publishing its own research in a medical journal that, it just so happens, was edited by a consultant of the New York Giants. The evidence the NFL used to claim that concussions were no big deal was, laughingly, that so many players returned to the field soon after sustaining one, as if no athlete ever attempted to play while in less-than-optimal condition.

The actual research, meanwhile, showed debilitating brain damage occurring in the brains of NFL players. When asked how many NFL players have what's known as CTE – a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma – one medical researcher, a top neuropathologist, said, " I don't think everybody has it, but I think it's going to be a shockingly high percentage."

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Football Be Fundamentally Changed to Make It Safer?]

These stories should bring new scrutiny to the recent settlement agreed to by the NFL and thousands of former players who sued the league over damage done to them via concussion. As U.S. News' Susan Milligan noted at the time, anyone who thinks the settlement was a good one for players " needs to have his head examined." Indeed, though the overall number of $765 million earmarked for treatment and research of concussions sounds like a lot, much of the cash is being paid out over 17 years, making it a pittance when compared to the billions of dollars in revenue that the NFL makes annually. The settlement also allows the NFL to avoid any admission of guilt for concealing the effects of concussions; it's looking more and more like the NFL knew exactly what it was doing including that particular condition.

The NFL, of course, is far from the only professional sports league that is going to have to grapple with concussions in a serious and thoughtful manner. New research has shown that concussion effects can last a lifetime for National Hockey League players, and even Major League Baseball players aren't immune.

But football is America's most popular sport, and because of that – and football's very nature as a more physical endeavor – the NFL is going to have to figure out what can be done to make the game one that does not leave its stars crippled or, as has become increasingly common, suicidal. So far, what we've seen out of the league is not much cause for comfort.