How the NFL Sidelined Science—and Why It Matters

October 25, 2017
Photo: Nathan Rupert/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)
Genna Reed
Senior Analyst

Football was not just the most important social activity on weekends in New Jersey growing up, but it was woven into the family and community in which I grew up. My dad played football in his small town Vermont high school along with his older brother who went on to play college football at the University of Vermont. Hence, weekends at the Reed household were for screaming at TV sets or from real-life bleachers and theatrical displays of cheering played out in falling off of couches and crashing onto floors.

Football players have always carried a sort of badge of honor for playing America’s favorite sport, but it wasn’t until recently that that badge began to carry even more weight due to emerging knowledge about what even just a few years of executing football plays could mean for their quality of life down the line.

Even if you don’t closely follow football, you are likely aware that the NFL has been at the center of the news cycle in recent months, with players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. The players’ protest has drawn fire from a number of directions, including the White House. (Here at UCS, our staff joined with the campaign #scientiststakeaknee, supporting these players’ right to protest and the importance of their cause.)

But these protests aren’t the only way that the NFL has come into the spotlight. It’s increasingly clear that the repeated head injuries many football players experience can cause long-term damage—but the NFL has worked hard to bury these facts.

The NFL’s foray into CTE science

A powerful slide from Dr. Ann McKee’s presentation summarizing her findings on CTE at the Powering Precision Health Summit. The BU Brain Bank most recently analyzed 111 brains of former NFL players, finding that all but one had signs of CTE.

The NFL spent years, beginning in the 1990s, working to control the science behind the health consequences of repeated head injuries incurred while playing football. By doing so, the company infringed on its players’ right to know and ability to make informed decisions about their health and career paths. And as the NFL failed to do its due diligence to conduct honest science on the game, players were consistently told to return to play after collisions only to be left with debilitating health issues and devastated family members.

The NFL’s actions closely track with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, and include examples of just about every tactic in our “Disinformation Playbook,” which are documented in Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada’s 2013 book, League of Denial. Just a few uses of the plays include:

The Fake: The NFL commissioned a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee that published a series of studies in the journal Neurosurgery in the early 2000s, which downplayed the risks of repeated head injuries by cherrypicking data and using incomplete data on the number of concussions that were reported during games.

The Blitz: Bennett Omalu, the pathologist who first discovered CTE in an NFL player, faced opposition from the NFL which called for the retraction for his article on the subject in 2005 and then called his second study “not appropriate science” and “purely speculative.” The second chair of NFL’s brain injury committee, Ira Casson, later attacked and mocked Boston University neuropathologist, Dr. Ann McKee, for her work on CTE.

The Diversion: Ira Casson acquired the nickname “Dr. No” by the authors of League of Denial as he willfully refused to accept that repeated head injury could lead to long-term brain damage in football players, even though he spent years studying boxers and had concluded that the sport was associated with brain damage. In a 2010 Congressional hearing on football brain injuries, he held tight to his denial of the link, telling members of Congress that, “My position is that there is not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football result in long term brain damage.”

The Fix: The NFL was able to manipulate processes in order to control the science on head injuries sustained while playing football. The editor-in-chief of the journal Neurosurgery in which all of the MTBI’s studies were published was Dr. Michael Apuzzo, a consultant for an NFL football team. The peer review process for this journal, unlike others, allowed papers to be published even if reviewers were harshly critical and rejected the science as long as the objections were published in the commentaries section of the paper. Despite harsh criticism from reviewers who were prominent experts in the field, Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, the MTBI got away with publishing a series of papers downplaying the health risks of playing football.

In 2016, the NFL finally admitted that there was a link between playing football and the development of degenerative brain disorders like CTE after denying the risks for over a decade. The NFL has since changed some of its rules and has dedicated funding to help make the game safer for players, protections that President Trump argues are “ruining the game.” Trump’s blatant disregard of the evidence on the health impacts of playing football is beyond disappointing but not at all surprising, considering the way that this administration has treated science since day one.

From NFL player to science champion

Chris and I behind the scenes after a full day filming the PSA this August.

I have been fortunate to meet and spend time with former NFL player and science champion, Chris Borland, who has turned his frustration with the league into support for independent science on the impacts of playing football for its child and adult players. Yesterday, he spoke at a scientific conference on the role of the media and others in communicating the CTE science to the general public, so that we all have a better understanding of the risks of playing football, especially during youth. He also spoke about the emerging science on biomarkers that will help diagnose CTE in living players in the near future.

Here’s Chris’s take on why we should be standing up for science and exposing and fighting back against the disinformation playbook:

Chris and I are also featured on this week’s Got Science? podcast. Listen below:

In carrying out plays from the Playbook to sideline science, companies like the NFL break a simple social responsibility to “do no harm.” Take a look at our brand new website detailing the case study of the NFL along with 19 other examples of ways in which companies or trade organizations have manipulated or suppressed science at our expense, and find out how you help us stop the playbook.