FROM THE ARCHIVES: Mission Accomplished: NFL Hides Its Concussion Problem Successfully

It is no longer a secret that the National Football League has an issue when it comes to the long-term health of its players. However, through obfuscation and bully tactics, the NFL hides its concussion problem pretty well. David McCullough details what the NFL has done, and is willing to do to keep this problem at bay.

Maskirovka is a Russian word that translates roughly as, “deception in plain sight,” especially on the battlefield. One of history’s great maskirovkas has been just recently pulled off by the National Football League and its owners this summer: The NFL settled the concussion lawsuit with former players and nobody noticed.

While all eyes had been drawn to Roger Goodell and Tom Brady in federal court, former players were given what some have called a “bogus settlement” while no one was watching. While such language may brain-injurybe strong and the settlement is not without value, it appears clear that future, present, and former players, many suffering from mood disorders, dementia, and myriad assorted other health problems have been effectively  used as pawns by their former employers. The NFL and its dynastic owners spent decades lying to these men about the risk of concussions. These same people continue to obfuscate and downplay the potential long term health effects of concussions.

Lives are on the line. Others have already been lost. How has this been allowed to happen?

Christopher Seeger, co-lead class counsel for the retired players, disagrees that the settlement is “bogus.” Seeger writes:

The court noted that the science on chronic traumatic encephalopathy is in its infancy. Therefore, the settlement appropriately compensates the neurocognitive and neuromuscular conditions most closely associated with concussions and brain injury — and C.T.E. — namely, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”

Mr. Seeger is correct that the science is in its infancy, but in large measure because the NFL did everything they could to obstruct the progress of linking repetitive contact to brain injuries. Mark Fainaru-Wada reported in 2012, “One NFL member of their brain committee said, you know, relating these cases, creating a causal link based on these case studies to football is akin to saying basically all the ankle injuries suffered by football players wearing Nike shoes were because of the shoes.”

brain-scan-2By settling, the NFL avoids addressing the real impact of concussions on the emotional well-being of its former players despite the fact that head injuries are associated with subsequent depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. In addition, the settlement does not compensate former NFL players who develop emotional or psychotic problems later in life.

Limiting the settlement to those suffering, “conditions most closely related,” to concussions means that psychotic, depressed, and/or suicidal former players are excluded. Without a doubt, those exhibiting closely related symptoms – if afflicted with cognitive impairment – will receive necessary care as a result. But it would do nothing for Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bear suffering from depression who knew something was wrong with his brain – so certain was he that when he shot himself in the chest, he left behind a request that his brain be examined. He was later diagnosed with CTE. The NFL’s narrowing of qualifying symptoms is a cynical attempt to legally limit the scope of their liability, forever protecting its profits while current and former players suffer. In this vein, it is notable that Duerson’s family has objected to the settlement that they claim, “disenfranchises the families who will inevitably suffer the horrific ramifications of CTE.”

Furthermore, the settlement does not even acknowledge that concussions can cause dementia later in life. While it is fortunate that retired players do not need to prove, on a case-by-case basis, that their respective dementias arose from concussive hits, the settlement provides no basis for preventing such issues from occurring in the future. Not one coin of the settlement will go towards understanding the effects of trauma on the brain, engineering equipment to reduce these potential effects, or into potential treatments or cures for disorders that may arise from these effects. Essentially, players are getting paid for suffering from a set of disorders that cannot be understood, treated effectively, or cured at this time.brain-injury-2

Despite these facts, the NFL focuses on solutions with scant empirical basis. Starting this season, the NFL is instituting a concussion protocol. “Spotters” in the press box will now have the authority to remove a player from the game for at least one play. The so-called “Edelman Rule” is intended to give independent trainers the authority to stop play to remove a player from action to undergo a concussion test. Concussion spotters have supposedly had the ability to suggest removal on the sidelines since 2009, according the NFL.

However, as is becoming a theme, the new concussion protocol, much like the settlement, does nothing to prevent or discourage concussive hits. Even the response to Edelman’s hit is emblematic of the NFL’s position on this – instead of flagging Chancellor for a helmet to helmet hit (and for launching into Edelman with this head), the response was ire toward the Patriots for not removing Edelman after such a hit.

This approach actually serves to underscore the reality of the NFL’s indifference to or, at least, disinterest in, real engagement with the problem by highlighting the fact that the NFL does not consider variation in concussive effects. Broadly speaking, the effects of brain injuries vary significantly from system to system, making the effects of a concussion very difficult to predict. To know the full effects of a concussion, one where the injury to the brain is unknown, would require a full cognitive and emotional assessment. If the NFL was serious about understanding how concussions may impact their players, annual cognitive assessments could provide a baseline to examine the effects of concussions. Coupled with a concussion protocol for evaluating cognition and emotion after on-field hits, such data could provide a rich picture in the effect of concussions on the brain, and help develop and test safer equipment.

cte-vs-adInstead, 75 million dollars from the settlement were provided for baseline assessments to retired players only. “The BAP is a $75 million fund that provides Retired Players with an opportunity to be tested for cognitive decline.  Any Retired Player who has played at least half of an Eligible Season can receive a baseline assessment examination, even if he has not yet developed any adverse symptoms nor received a Qualifying Diagnosis.” In other words, the baseline for cognitive decline is after a player has been subject to a career of NFL hits.

The NFL owners have continued for some time now to soft sell the danger inherent in their game. Now, decades of denial have culminated in this too-little-too-late settlement that barely addresses the biggest problem: Hard hits broke our heroes and no one knows how. It was a factor in the suicide of Duerson, Mike Webster, and others. It was a factor in the murder-suicide perpetrated by Jovan Belcher. And it was a factor in the suicide of newly inducted NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau. The NFL seems satisfied to profit off of repetitive hits to the head, only providing support once the full damage of the game has been done.

helmet-brain-Perhaps the saddest moment – and almost certainly the most grotesque – of the NFL’s maskirovka of the concussion problem is the NFL HOF not permitting Sydney Seau to present this speech at her deceased father’s enshrinement ceremony on August 7, 2015. Additionally, the commemoration video failed to acknowledge what lead to Seau’s death, further displaying the NFL’s refusal to acknowledge traumatic brain injuries connected to the game. Part of Seau’s tragedy is playing the sport the way he played; the very way of playing that made him a Hall of Famer was a significant contributor to his death.

Fans of the late linebacker had to read her words the next day. In an op-ed. Where hopefully no one would notice.

But as fans of the sport of football, it behooves us to notice:

But I think what we tend to forget about our favorite invincible, unstoppable, indestructible superhumans is the minor detail that they are also human. That is something that we all must endure today without his physical presence. We cannot celebrate his life and achievement without feeling the constant piece that’s missing.

May 2, 2012, we all endured a loss. Thousands lost their all-time favorite linebacker, hundreds lost their favorite Charger, tens lost their buddy, and four lost their father. The reason why this honor is so hard to accept is because we had always envisioned him still being here to accept it.

There’s nothing I want more than to see you walk up on stage, give me a hug and tell me that you love me one last time, but that isn’t our reality. You would always say you loved me, and even after I would respond and say I loved you, too, you would look me in the eyes and say, “I love you; do you hear me?”

The NFL was rightfully afraid that a daughter, a young woman who while still in high school lost her father  to chronic brain injuries, would make fans think about the League’s shameful history of denial and lying about the risks to the players.

football-helmetSo while the NFL continues its three-ring circus sideshow this week in New York, think about Dave Duerson. And Steve Gleason. And Junior Seau. And the countless others who have literally killed themselves for our entertainment. The NFL has demonstrated repeatedly their willingness to ignore the science and the symptoms behind traumatic brain injuries – symptoms too often culminating in nearly incomprehensible tragedy and broken lives. The refusal to acknowledge that head injuries might cause cognitive, emotional, and psychotic disorders later in life offends the most basic of social sensibilities.

Lauding a dead man for his “toughness” and his willingness to “smash heads” but refusing to mention that he died because of complications from repetitive brain trauma from just that? And then denying his daughter the podium at his Hall of Fame enshrinement for fear of… who knows what?

This… this is the NFL’s most skillful maskirovka yet.

Author’s Note: Eric Fezcko was an invaluable contributor in helping me to understand the neurological science. Many thanks for his contributions to this piece. Any mistakes herein are my responsibility solely.

Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.

David R. McCullough is the Editor in Chief of Inside the Pylon and SoSH Baseball. He also writes about the topics shaping the sport, and explores the controversial issues facing the game.

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