Deny, deny, deny.
Hedge, hedge, hedge.
Reject, reject, reject.
That was the NFL’s strategy for years when faced with suggestions that football and concussions were married and produced an ugly baby nicknamed CTE, short for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Taking took a page from Big Tobacco, which disputed the link between smoking and health for 40 years until the Surgeon General released a landmark study in 1964, the NFL spent two decades discrediting science on concussions and downplaying football’s connection to brain damage. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones famously told reporters in 2000 that he pushed Troy Aikman to play through concussions “since all the data that we have so far doesn’t point to any lasting effects, long-term effects from the head trauma.”
But Monday, on Capitol Hill, a top NFL official went off script as if he heard Will Smith portraying Dr. Bennet Omalu and pleading: “Tell the truth!”
During a roundtable discussion on concussions convened by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., asked the NFL senior vice president for health and safety if the link between football and neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE has been established.
“The answer to that question is certainly yes,” Jeff Miller said. He quickly added “there’s also a number of questions that come with that.” But the damage was done.
Stop the presses: A league rep admitted the obvious.
Miller’s confession rings louder and carries more significance than the only other similar statement by an NFL official. Spokesman Greg Aiello told The New York Times in 2009 that “it’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.”
Every official before and since – including commissioner Roger Goodell – stuck to the playbook. Until Monday.
Miller’s acknowledgement could mean trouble for the NFL and football in general. It took plaintiffs in a class-action concussion lawsuit about 4.4 seconds to seize upon the comment.
Attorney Steven Molo, who represents some former players who opted out of the $1 billion settlement, cited the contradiction in a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. “The NFL (has) stated that ‘speculation that repeated concussion or subconcussive impacts cause CTE remains unproven,’” he wrote Tuesday. “(Miller’s) statements make clear that the NFL now accepts what science already knows: a ‘direct link’ exists between traumatic brain injury and CTE.”
It would come as no surprise if Miller received a stern tongue-lashing upon returning to headquarters. The league’s discipline in staying on the same page, though wrong-headed, has been admirable. We saw a clear example not long ago when a member of the league’s Head, Neck and Spine committee showed Miller how it’s supposed to be done.
During a Super Bowl event, Dr. Mitch Berger denied a link between playing football and the development of CTE. “We’ve seen evidence anecdotally of a number of players who have come to autopsy who have had the diagnosis made,” he said at a news conference on Feb. 4.” We’ve also seen a number of players who have done very well.”
Pressed for a direct answer on whether there’s a football-CTE link, Berger said: “No.”
The implications of reversing that position goes far beyond Sundays. Every level of football takes it cue from “The Shield.”
Parents who allow their children to play tackle football “have trusted the NFL, and the NFL was on the fence for a long time,” Concussion Legacy Foundation founder Chris Nowinski told The New York Times Tuesday. “We now have significant confirmation from the NFL and that could have ripple effects around football and sports.”
The NCAA and NHL also face class-action lawsuits from former players and lawyers in those cases welcomed Miller’s unexpected honesty. Just last year, in his best Goodell impersonation, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said “from a medical and science standpoint, there is no evidence of a connection between head injuries and CTE.”
Time to draw up a new game plan.
Surely the NFL will continue to pour millions of dollars into campaigns designed to reduce fear. The league certainly will continue to promote tackling techniques and advances in safety equipment that purportedly mitigate the game’s inherent risks. And don’t expect a surge of conscientious colleagues to join Miller, even though the league reluctantly backed his comments in a statement Tuesday, saying they “accurately reflect the view of the NFL.”
The about-face reminds me of boxing promoter Bob Arum’s classic line: “Yesterday I was lying; today I’m telling the truth.”
It took a while, but the NFL finally has come clean.
Now football must brace for impact.