NFL Demands Retraction of New York Times Story on Player Concussions

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 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

The National Football League reportedly sent a letter to the New York Times' legal counsel Monday demanding a retraction to the outlet's story last week about the NFL's research into concussions.

Joe Pompeo of Politico Media reported Tuesday that NFL attorney Brad S. Karp called the New York Times article "false and defamatory" in the letter. The league also "seemed to threaten the possibility of further legal action," and it requested those who worked on the story to preserve all of the information gathered for the piece.

On Wednesday, Times sports editor Jason Stallman provided a statement refusing to retract the story to CBS Sports' Will Brinson:

We see no reason to retract anything.

The N.F.L. apparently objects to our reporting that the league had ties to the tobacco industry. But, as the article noted, a co-owner of the Giants, Preston R. Tisch, also partly owned a leading cigarette company, Lorillard, and was a board member of both the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research, two entities that played a central role in misusing science to hide the risks of cigarettes. Also, the N.F.L. and the tobacco industry shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants.

The N.F.L. also apparently objects to our reporting that the studies produced by the league's concussion committee were more deeply flawed than previously understood. The league has always maintained that the studies were based on a data set that included every concussion that was diagnosed by a team doctor. In fact, our reporting showed that more than 100 such concussions -- including some sustained by star players -- were not included in the data set, resulting in inaccurate findings.

It's the latest move in an increasingly heated battle between the NFL and the newspaper about the investigative report. Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich and Jacqueline Williams of the New York Times wrote the piece, titled "NFL's Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry."

According to the report, more than 100 diagnosed concussionswhich represented over 10 percent of the totalwere omitted from previous league studies into the impact of football-related head trauma. In turn, the rate of concussions seemed lower than it actually was during a span from 1996 through 2001.

It also looked into a possible connection to the tobacco industry: "The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco. But records show a long relationship between two businesses with little in common beyond the health risks associated with their products."

The NFL quickly responded to the article with a lengthy statement, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. In part, it read: "The Times' sensationalized story is further refuted by the NFL's ongoing commitment on the issue of player health and safety."

The league also started an aggressive marketing approach to combat the article. Nick Niedzwiadek of the Wall Street Journal noted NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed it ran ads on the New York Times' own website as well as on Facebook and Twitter to highlight safety improvements.

"We wanted readers to have all the information about all the work that we've done to improve the safety of the game," McCarthy said. "We were concerned that our message was being mishandled by the Times."

Now, the NFL, which previously reported a nearly 32 percent increase in diagnosed concussions during the 2015 preseason and regular season, is demanding a full retraction of the story.

While the fight between the sides continues, the fact remains head injuries are a major concern when it comes to the NFL's long-term success. In September, Jason M. Breslow of PBS relayed results from a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, which showed 96 percent of the 91 former NFL players studied had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Finding a way to make the sport markedly safer to decrease those troubling statistics is an important challenge the league must try to tackle in the years ahead.