NFL Responds to Report of Flawed Concussion Data in Past Research

Mike Chiari@mikechiariFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2016

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talks during a press conference at the NFL owners meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

As the NFL continues to take steps toward concussion prevention and treatment, a new report alleged that the league's past data regarding head injuries is incomplete.

According to Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich and Jacqueline Williams of the New York Times, confidential data suggests that more than 10 percent of concussions that occurred from 1996 to 2001 were not included in studies, which made the NFL's concussion issue seem less significant than it really was.

The league admitted that not every team submitted full data, since teams were not required to, but insisted it wasn't part of a conscious effort to alter the statistics.

Per the Times report, NFL concussion committee member Dr. Joseph Waeckerle took great issue with the inconsistency in past concussion research: "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."

Following the publication of the story, the NFL responded with a statement condemning the Times for its report:

Today's New York Times story on the National Football League is contradicted by clear facts that refute both the thesis of the story and each of its allegations. As the Times itself states: "The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco." Despite that concession, the Times published pages of innuendo and speculation for a headline with no basis in fact.

The studies that are the focus of the Times' story used data collected between 1996-2001. They were necessarily preliminary and acknowledged that much more research was needed. Since that time, the NFL has been on the forefront of promoting and funding independent research on these complex issues. Further, the data from the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee studies have not been used in any way by the current Head, Neck and Spine Committee in its research on player health and safety. All of the current policies relating to player medical care and the treatment of concussions have been carefully developed in conjunction with independent experts on our medical committees, the NFLPA, and leading bodies such as the CDC.

In a memo to owners Thursday relayed by Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman, NFL Executive Vice President of Communications Joe Lockhart and general counsel Jeff Pash addressed the allegations and explained, "When the Times contacted us about the piece, we provided extraordinary amounts of information that conclusively refuted every aspect of the story. All of that material has been made public."

The memo also says, "The piece offers very little that is new concerning this long-ago research and reflects little more than the predetermined views of its authors."

The official Twitter account for the New York Times sports section offered a rebuttal of its own to the NFL's statement and memo by refuting several claims made by the league:

"The Times claims that the concussion studies ... purposely relied on faulty ..." Our article did not claim that. "Studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported ..." Studies and peer review statements did claim that. "Story claims the league relied on legal advice from Lorillard and Tobacco Institute." Our article did not claim that. "League has never participated in any joint lobbying efforts with Tobacco Institute." Our article did not claim that. NFL says participation in study wasn't mandated. At least one of the papers said it was, in fact, mandated. "Times insinuates NFL hired Mitchell ... because of experience in tobacco litigation." Article did not say how or why she was hired. NFL studies never mentioned that some teams didn't participate. Yet their numbers were included, producing lower concussion rates.

NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Jeff Miller recently acknowledged the link between head injuries in football and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been found posthumously in the brains of multiple former players.

When asked if there was a connection in front of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce, Miller responded, "The answer to that question is certainly yes," according to's Steve Fainaru.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later backed up that statement and discussed the NFL's record of funding concussion and CTE research, per's Kevin Seifert:

The most important thing for us is to support the medicine and scientists who determine what those connections are. We think that the statements that have been made by Jeff Miller and others have [been] consistent with our position over the years. We've actually funded those studies. So we're not only aware of those and recognize them but we support those studies. A lot of the research is still in its infancy, but we're trying to find ways to accelerate that.

The number of reported concussions was up significantly in the NFL this past season, from 206 in 2014 to 271 in 2015, according to Seifert.

That may be a sign that players and teams are now far more forthcoming with head injuries than they were in the past.

Flaws in the way concussions were handled in the past may have put the NFL behind the eight ball in terms of handling the epidemic, but it certainly seems as though the league is now committed to protecting its players more than ever before.


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