Report: NFL's Concussion Research Is Deeply Flawed

| by Michael Allen

The National Football League's (NFL) player concussion research is deeply flawed, according to a new report.

The New York Times notes that the NFL formed a concussion committee in 1994 to investigate player concussions.

The concussion committee’s research papers were published in 13 peer-reviewed articles in the medical journal Neurosurgery, and were presented as medical evidence by the NFL that brain injuries were not causing long-term harmful effects in football players.

The concussion committee's papers said they were based on all the player concussions that team physicians diagnosed from 1996 through 2001, but more than 100 concussions (more than 10 percent of the total) were left out of the papers, according to the newspaper.

In one glaring example of an omission, the Dallas Cowboys didn't list one concussion during the 1996-2001 time period, despite quarterback Troy Aikman suffering three of them along with one head injury, which The New York Times said media reports described as a "mild concussion."

The San Francisco 49ers didn't list any concussions between 1997 and 2000, but their quarterback Steve Young suffered two during that time period.

Rich Dalrymple, a spokesman for the Cowboys, told the newspaper that the team participated in the committee's studies, but he didn't say how many concussions were reported or why the Cowboys' information didn't appear in the committee's papers.

A San Francisco 49ers spokesman did not comment on Young's missing concussions.

“It was understood that any player with a recognized symptom of head injury, no matter how minor, should be included in the study,” one concussion committee paper stated.

Another committee paper said: “The Commissioner of the N.F.L. mandated all team physicians to complete and return forms whenever they examined a player with a head injury.”

The concussion committee wrote in confidential peer-review papers that “all N.F.L. teams participated” and that “all players were therefore part of this study.”

The NFL's concussion committee subsequently came up with rates of concussions that did not include the missing injuries, which gave the false impression that concussions were less common than they really were, notes The New York Times.

The newspaper asked the NFL about the missing concussions, and the league said that “the clubs were not required to submit their data and not every club did.”

The NFL went on to say how that should have been made clearer in the papers, but that the omissions were not an effort “to alter or suppress the rate of concussions.”

The NFL also stated that the concussion studies “never purported” to include all concussions, and added that its teams were “not mandated” to report all concussions, only “strongly encouraged.” The NFL said that some teams “did not take the additional steps of supplying the initial and/or follow-up forms.”

The New York Times reports that most of the missing concussions were part of the NFL's public injury reports.

Dr. Joseph Waeckerle, who was on the concussion committee, said that he was not aware of the missing concussions: “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.”

Michael L. J. Apuzzo, who was the editor of Neurosurgery at the time the committee's concussion papers were published in the journal, would not comment to The New York Times.

In 2013, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with thousands of ex-NFL players and their families who sued the league, reported CNN at the time.

In their lawsuit, the families and former players accused the NFL of deliberately orchestrating a misinformation campaign, mostly through the committee, in order to deny scientific data from the medical establishment about the risks of concussions for NFL players.

Some ex-football players have compared the NFL's tactics to the tobacco industry, which obscured the harmful effects of smoking for decades. However, a lawyer for the NFL strongly pushed back against any comparison of the two.

The New York Times notes that several people who worked for the tobacco industry during its denial years were also employed by or advised the NFL.

Sources: The New York Times, CNN / Photo credit: Max Andrews/Wikimedia