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Report: NFL’s concussion research was based on bad data


Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The NFL engaged in a shameful downplaying of the link between concussions and long-term health problems within the confines of the work of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.

But here’s the disturbing new chapter, as presented by the New York Times. Research conducted by the NFL based on concussions diagnosed between 1996 and 2001 omitted more than 100 concussions.

“If somebody made a human error or somebody assumed the data was absolutely correct and didn’t question it, well, we screwed up,” Committee member Dr. Joseph Waeckerle told the Times. “If we found it wasn’t accurate and still used it, that’s not a screw-up; that’s a lie.”

It’s hardly a surprise that the “nothing to see here” attitude of the NFL manifested itself through a potentially deliberate effort to not see the full extent of the problem. But the disclosure that numbers were fudged regarding such an important matter of public concern is the kind of thing that could get a federal prosecutor interested in exploring whether and to what extent laws were broken by the manner in which the NFL conducted its research.

Apart from any potential criminal consequences, the disclosure could kick the door open for more civil liability. Coincidentally or not (bet the not), the report comes at a time when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is considering a challenge by a group of retired players to the 2013 concussion settlement. Evidence that would tend to make the case stronger than it previously was believed to be could result in the settlement being scrapped.

Instead of focusing entirely on the idea that the NFL may have deliberately omitted concussion data from its concussion research, the Times article spends way too much time linking the NFL to the tobacco industry, pointing out ties between pro football and Big Tobacco. While I’m far from qualified to give editorial advice to the New York Times (then again, lack of qualifications has never stopped me in the past), it would have made more sense to treat that as a separate topic entirely.

The focus for now should be on the NFL failing to properly account for all concussions during the period in question, and also on the one dynamic that continues to be ignored by those who are throwing darts (and rightfully so) at the NFL: The role of the NFL Players Association under the late Gene Upshaw in aiding, abetting, and/or outright committing the very same misconduct in which the league has been accused of engaging.

“For far too long, our former players were left adrift,” current NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in 2009, his first year on the job, at a Congressional hearing. “We were complicit in the lack of leadership and accountability, but that ends now. I am here again to make it clear that our commitment is unwavering.”

While the commitment may be unwavering under Smith, the notion that both management and labor possibly were working to conceal facts from the rank and file suggests that far more work needs to be done to get to the whole truth, whether through the civil justice system, the criminal justice system, journalism, or some combination of the three.