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N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research Potentially Tied to the Tobacco Industry

Published on Mar 28, 2016 at 2:27 pm in Brain Injury.

For the last 13 years, the National Football League has stood behind the league committee’s research papers that downplayed the news headlines claiming that a frightening number of players went into retirement early after experiencing concussions and other brain injuries like chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a type of degenerative brain disease. Despite physician criticism years after the research papers were published, the N.F.L. stood by the committee’s publications. Now, thanks to a major investigation launched by The New York Times, there’s new research suggesting that the papers were indeed heavily flawed—even more so than the critics thought years ago.

According to the confidential data obtained by The Times, more than 100 diagnosed concussions were omitted from the league’s studies. Many of these concussions were severe. Two of the most severe happened to star players like quarterback Steve Young and Troy Aikman. Altogether, the omitted cases make up about 10% of the total number of concussions that should have been included in the research study—a percentage large enough to completely change the study’s final results.

So far, the N.F.L.’s research committee hasn’t said much regarding this new information. Some interviewed committee members are implying that the omissions were an error. Others are stating that the studies never implied that every concussion had to be included—despite the fact that one paper explicitly stated that “The Commissioner of the N.F.L. mandated all team physicians to complete and return forms whenever they examined a player with a head injury.” Some teams omitted months or even entire seasons worth of concussions experienced by players.

Some of the most interesting data points uncovered by this new data aren’t even directly tied to the concussions themselves. Rather, these new points tie to the law. Specifically, big tobacco law. On at least two occasions during the 1970s and 1980s, the N.F.L. hired a company whose client list included the Tobacco Institute. A second hired company shared between both the N.F.L. and the Tobacco Institute was one that had performed a study for the tobacco industry which severely downplayed the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Finally, the two companies have even shared a few key legal representatives. One attorney by the name of Dorothy Mitchell provided both lobbying assistance and legal representation to both the N.F.L. and the tobacco industry. Another, Paul Tagliabue, was a partner at the firm representing the tobacco industry before becoming the N.F.L.’s commissioner. Two other attorneys were found to provide legal services for both groups during the same time frame. While there’s no proof that the N.F.L. solicited legal advice regarding any health or concussion-related issues from these attorneys, the connections alone seem suspicious.

Joe Browne, an N.F.L. official, sought lobbying advice from a representative of the Tobacco Institute back when Congress was considering legislation that controlled franchise relocation. Neil Austrian, a former N.F.L. president, once ran an advertising agency that reversed its ban on taking tobacco clients under his leadership. It was during his time as president that the N.F.L. decided to create the league’s concussion committee.

All these connections don’t prove anything by themselves, of course, but they are certainly interesting data points that may uncover more information in the future. In an official statement delivered later in the day, the N.F.L. denied having any ties to the tobacco industry, claiming that The New York Times was given more information than they chose to make public.

Regardless of the resulting implications of this new information, one thing remains clear—large corporations can have an immense amount of power. During the N.F.L.’s studies, there’s no denying the fact that the committee didn’t release all of the information they should have regarding player concussions. Because of the omissions, many fans and future players might think the game is safer than it really is. Professional sports corporations like the N.F.L. don’t always place the health of their players at an extremely high priority, and the same can obviously be said for the Tobacco Institute regarding its products and the health of its customers.

The same exact thing can also be said about many high-stake corporations in the healthcare industry. Corporations that create products or drugs on a massive scale don’t always take FDA warnings, physician warnings, or even factual case evidence into consideration when creating products. Not all products on the market are as safe as they should be, and it’s difficult to trust the corporations that make these products with cases like this reemerging and the tobacco industry’s history.

What you can place trust in, however, is one simple fact: As long as there are corporations out there that don’t correctly prioritize the safety of their customers, there will be attorneys willing to fight for the rights of the general public. Tad Thomas at Thomas Law Offices is one such attorney who believes that the safety and health of our families and loved ones should always come before corporate profit. If you’d like to find out more, feel free to give our office in Louisville a call today.