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NFL disputes Times report critical of its concussion study

In this Oct. 8, 2014, photo, NFL commissioner

In this Oct. 8, 2014, photo, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a news conference after a meeting of NFL owners and executives in New York. Credit: AP / John Minchillo

A study conducted by the NFL from 1996-2001 did not include more than 100 diagnosed concussions, including ones suffered by All-Pro quarterbacks Troy Aikman of the Cowboys and Steve Young of the 49ers, and thus concluded that the incidence of concussions wasn’t as high as it should have been, according to a report in Thursday’s New York Times.

The newspaper said the 100 concussions that were not included in the study represented more than 10 percent of the total used to determine the incidence of the injury.

The NFL told The Times that the missing data was not omitted on purpose “to alter or suppress the rate of concussions,” but one of the researchers involved in the study expressed concern about the unreported concussions.

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

The newspaper also reported that the league and the tobacco industry, which previously downplayed the dangers of smoking until studies concluded that it can cause cancer, “shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants.”

The NFL issued a blistering response to the story, and league attorney Jeff Pash and newly hired communications director Joe Lockhart, a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton, wrote a memo to league owners and team presidents describing what the NFL saw as flaws in the article.

“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,” the league’s statement began. “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 headline to the story read: “In NFL, Deeply Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Big Tobacco.” The league denied it “ever solicited, reviewed, or relied on any advice from anyone” at Lorillard [a cigarette company that had been partially owned by the late Giants co-owner Bob Tisch]. The release also said the NFL was not involved “in any joint lobbying efforts with the Tobacco Institute.”

In its memo to team presidents and owners, the league cited three areas of concern.

“First, as even the Times acknowledged, the research forms no part of the current work of the Head, Neck & Spine Committee. That committee resolved to set aside the prior work and start fresh. Second, the Times does not identify a single policy that is based solely on that work. 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 NFL Players Association and leading bodies such as the CDC. Third, the research papers themselves make clear that not all concussions were included in the data set. While the point made in the article could have been more clearly stated in the papers themselves, there is no question that all clubs reported data, although not every club reported data for every season.”

In a series of tweets after the NFL’s statement was issued, the newspaper stood by its reporting. Among other things, The Times refuted the league’s assertion that “studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported.” “Studies and peer review statements did claim that,” one tweet read. Another said the article did not claim that the league relied on legal advice from Lorillard and the Tobacco Institute. The Times’ Twitter account also said one of the documents it reviewed indicated that all teams were mandated to participate in the concussion study, while the league said participation wasn’t mandated.

The issue of concussions in the NFL has been a contentious one during the last two decades, and the league recently reached a $1-billion settlement with more than 5,000 former players who sued the NFL for not properly warning players of the dangers of concussion. At the conclusion of the league’s annual spring meetings on Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell backed NFL vice president Jeff Miller’s admission during a congressional round-table discussion that there was a direct link to football and the degenerative brain disease CTE as it related to an ongoing Boston University study that found 90 of 94 brains of deceased former players showed CTE. Goodell and other league officials have said, however, that more research is needed to determine whether there is a more widespread link to the larger population of current and former players.

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