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NFL follows the tobacco company playbook

by Donald Prothero, Nov 13 2013

In my new book Reality Check, I described research by a number of authors who investigated and exposed the 50-year-long effort by the tobacco companies to deny that they made a product that was dangerous. They did all they could to obfuscate and delay public health action by the well-known tactic of “smokescreens” to hide their real action. As the famous quote by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton (hired in the 1950s to advise Big Tobacco) said,  “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” For the next fifty years, the tobacco companies pursued this strategy. They paid for research by their own scientists, and suppressed or censored the results if they showed that tobacco was dangerous, but vigorously promoted any results that seemed favorable to them. They waged an all-out campaign to harass and impugn the research by outside scientists who discovered that tobacco was dangerous. They played the classic game of “doubt” mongers everywhere: insist on absolute scientific “certainty”, so that if the results are overwhelming (say, 80-90% certain), they would argue that it’s not good enough. (This, of course, plays on the public misconception about science, which is always about statistical likelihood, and rarely deals in true “certainty”). They hired prominent scientists in totally unrelated fields like nuclear physics to be their spokesmen, and to fight their battles in the public arena, especially in the halls of Congress. These people often played the “other causes” fallacy: if a disease like lung cancer can occur because of multiple causes, the tobacco companies would focus on these minor “other causes,” and insist that nothing should be done about regulating their own industry—even though all the independent research clearly showed that smoking was by far the most important cause of lung, throat, mouth, and other cancers. They fought their opponents vigorously with lawsuits and armies of lawyers, and battled tooth and nail to never lose a lawsuit against them—because one admission that they were responsible for someone’s death due to smoking would unleash an avalanche of lawsuits against them. Above all, they waged a relentless PR campaign to make tobacco seem safe and glamorous, or minimize its dangers, even as the weight of scientific evidence and public opinion was becoming overwhelmingly against them. 

This campaign kept the restrictions on tobacco at bay for over 50 years, until societal norms began to change, and smoking became less “cool”. Now in most parts of the United States, smoking is banned in almost all public places and even in some outdoor places, so that in many states (like here in California) it’s very rare to smell cigarette smoke except in the streets. Today, many places have limited “smoking areas” where the addicts huddle together in the freezing air, trying to assuage their “nic fits.”  But the final blow came in the late 1990s, when Congress had to use the RICO (Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations) Act, originally written to break up organized crime, to call the tobacco company executives on the carpet before Congressional subcommittee investigations. There, one after another, the execs  perjured themselves by claiming they knew nothing of the efforts of their companies to hinder unfavorable research and trumpet favorable research, and otherwise hide the truth in order to protect their bottom lines.

Having researched the history of this topic, it gives me a strange sense of deja vu to read of another huge American corporation pursuing the same strategy: the National Football League. As detailed in the book League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth by  Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru (as well as a series of other books and TV documentaries), the NFL has used the same type of “smokescreen tactics” for decades. Twenty years ago their internal documents show that they were aware of the link between brain damage and frequent football-related concussions. They tried to cover up or suppress the many studies that were establish this linkage, attacked those who published research unfavorable to them, and did all they could to deny that NFL football caused brain damage. Meanwhile, they had “hired gun” scientists who produced results favorable to them, and touted those extensively to contradict the evidence coming from independent research.  As the Fainaru brothers demonstrated:

• Two original members of a concussion committee established by Tagliabue disavowed the committee’s major findings, including the NFL’s assertion that concussions were minor injuries that never led to long-term brain injury.

• As far back as 1999, the NFL’s retirement board paid more than $2 million in disability payments to former players after concluding football gave them brain damage. But it would be nearly a decade before league executives would publicly acknowledge a link.

• Beginning in 2000, some of the country’s top neuroscientists warned the NFL that football led to higher rates of depression, memory loss, dementia and brain damage.

• The league in 2005 tried unsuccessfully to have medical journals retract the published work of several independent concussion researchers.

• Independent researchers directly warned Goodell about the connection between football and brain damage in 2007, but the commissioner waited nearly three years to acknowledge the link and to dismantle the league’s discredited concussion committee. In 2009, two other independent researchers delivered still more evidence that football caused brain damage during a private meeting at the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters. Yet the league committee’s co-chairman, Dr. Ira Casson, mocked and challenged the researchers so aggressively that he offended others who were present, including a Columbia University suicide expert and a U.S. Army colonel who directed the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.

• As the crisis escalated, the NFL tried desperately to regain control of the issue and contain damage to its brand. Before an October 2009 hearing on football and brain injuries conducted by the House Judiciary Committee, the NFL lobbied successfully to prevent Goodell from testifying on the same panel as the father of a high school quarterback who had died after sustaining a concussion.

• Dr. Ann McKee, the leading expert on football and brain damage, told the authors that she believes the incidences of neurodegenerative disease among NFL players will prove to be “shockingly high” and that “most NFL players are going to get this. It’s just a question of degree.” Since 2005, when the disease was first diagnosed in deceased NFL players, McKee has studied 54 brains harvested from deceased NFL players. All but two had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). “I’m really wondering where this stops,” she told the Fainarus. “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

As Josh Holland writes:

For years, the chairman of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, Dr. Elliott Pellman, portrayed concussions as nothing more than minor injuries. In fact, Pellman, a rheumatologist with no prior expertise in brain research, was the lead author of nine of the 16 studies published in 2003 that minimized the significance of concussions in the NFL. Pellman, who served as chairman from 1994 to 2007, also “discredited various independent studies concerning the severity of concussions,” writesSean Newell of Deadspin.

Now the lid has been blown off the cover-up, and sports journalists across the country have joined in the outrage over the NFL’s actions. Perhaps it is the recent rash of young NFL players demonstrating brain damage, including the tragic suicide of San Diego Charger linebacker Junior Seau and several others, which has riveted the attention of the public. It’s hard to tell how far this  scandal will go: better headgear,  stricter rules about hitting and especially hits to the head, or possibly more severe restrictions. Either way, it’s striking how the NFL has followed the tobacco companies’ playbook to the letter. In fact, most of these strategies are universal to those who would deny what science tells us, whether they be creationists, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, AIDS deniers, and many others discussed in my new book.

I used to be a big fan of NFL football, following the “heartbreak kids”, the Minnesota Vikings, since 1968. But as the years go by, I no longer watch much football , and once the Vikings are out of contention (as they are already this season), I stop paying attention to the league at all. Now, with the realization that these huge men smashing each other with enormous force each Sunday means many will die of brain damage, I can’t watch it at all. I just wonder how much this will change the interest of the average fan in the future.

People say that the NFL is the most profitable and popular sport in the U.S. right now, and can’t imagine it falling from its place of dominance. But I remember  when heavyweight boxing was a popular sport, and even the casual citizen who was not a boxing fan knew the names of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foremen, and many others. The last fighter that almost everyone knew about was Mike Tyson. These days, hardly anyone but a hard-core boxing fan can tell you who is the current heavyweight boxing champion (partly because they split up the championships, so no one can keep track of which crown is which). Some of it is clearly due to mismanagement of professional boxing by overzealous promoters, the promotion of too many mediocre fighters, and possibly the declining quality of boxers. But a lot of it is probably due to the fact that most people see Muhammad Ali or other legendary boxers today, standing mute in a haze with almost no idea what’s going on around them, and are stunned to see their legends fall. It is then that you realize that boxing isn’t just a sport; it’s a brutal battle to hurt your opponent, and try to knock them out with a mild concussion. Any fighter who stays at it very long ends up becoming a vegetable. For many people, watching the combat of the arena is overshadowed by the realization that these men will pay a heavy price down the road.

Now many people see the NFL the same way.


29 Responses to “NFL follows the tobacco company playbook”

  1. Max says:

    I was surprised to learn that boxing gloves are worn not to protect the head, but to protect the hand so it can punch the head harder.

    • Max says:

      I was also surprised to learn that the NFL and other sports leagues are tax exempt non-profits.

    • markx says:

      Probably gloves are designed to protect both hands and head. Bare fist strikes quickly result in terrible facial cuts, makes the whole thing an awfully messy business.

      • Max says:

        Fewer messy cuts, more clean brain damage.

      • markx says:

        You may be correct Max.

        Now, I know I am being pedantic here … but… it is an interesting point, to me at least.

        I think gloves were perhaps initially primarily designed to protect the hands. However I doubt it is a fact that there is more brain damage on a per punch basis. But I believe they may worsen the damage by prolonging the fight, due to the cushioning effect on each individual punch.

        In my observation professional boxing matches seem to often run the full ten rounds, and knockouts, if they do occur, are usually following a build up of effective punches.

        However, in MMA, with lighter, much less padded gloves, we see many more clean ‘flash knockouts’ … the fighter steps in and with one punch achieves a knockout. It is perhaps, not very good business, people pay to see a major sporting event, and it is over in one minute.

        My belief is that gloves in boxing are effective in prolonging the event.

        I have no science to back this up, but a number of ‘uncontrolled experiments’ I carried out personally many years ago provided some evidence that clean knockouts with bare fists are a frequent occurrence and very easily achieved by a relatively untrained fighter.

      • markx says:

        To comment on the main point of the article I’d say, yes, that sports groups involved very likely are covering up evidence and are going to some lengths to downplay the risks and ignore the casualties.

        And I think they should be forced to make full and accurate disclosure and regularly and full publicize those risks. I predict that will have no effect on the number of willing participants or spectators.

        But, these multi-million dollar industries should be forced to pay full compensation and support to willing participants who do end up becoming major casualties of the these money making enterprises. It should not fall upon families or the state to bear the resulting costs while those responsible enjoy the spoils.

    • tmac57 says:

      It seems like the added mass that a boxing glove has could also make for a much more potent strike to the head.The gloves can be as much as 16oz,which is about the same as a can of beans for example,and they are not really all that soft either.I was quite surprised the first time that I was struck in the face with a boxing glove that it hurt so much,and really rang my bell.

    • Max says:

      Here’s a little experiment comparing boxing gloves, MMA gloves, and bare fist.

      They found that the MMA gloves deliver slightly more force than the boxing gloves. The bare fist delivered the most force, but he was punching a punching bag, which is already padded, so there’s no damage to the hand. Try punching a skull.

      • tmac57 says:

        Good point Max. I would think you would adjust your punching force to limit the amount of damage/pain that it might cause to the bare hand vs the padded hand.
        Over all,that wasn’t much of a controlled experiment either.

  2. Tom says:

    I think your conclusions about the demise of boxing are incorrect (2nd to last paragraph). Do you have any idea how popular mixed martial arts, UFC (not sure about that acronym), etc are? Boxing has been replaced in the hearts of fight fans by a much more brutal sport.

    • I think you made my point. In my youth, almost everyone knew the names of the heavyweight boxing champ. Now that person is typically unknown to all but the boxing fans, but there are many other martial arts competing with it–and their champs are relatively unknown as well…

      • Mark S says:

        Yes, I have to agree with this. There is no way boxing is as popular as it was 20-30 years ago. I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s, and even then everyone knew who the Champ was, whether it was Ali, or then Larry Holmes, and even Tyson until Holyfield took it from him. Thanks to the greed of various promoters and mismanagement of the sport, it’s become so fractured that only a handful of fighters command the same kind of attention and money. None are household names like EVERY Heavyweight champ was in the past.

        I’d beg to differ with Tom’s comment that MMA or UFC is a much more brutal sport; it’s simply different. I’m a boxing fan, and my father was a professional boxer, but we both recognise that different skills are required to be a top level UFC fighter. Knowledge of different styles, techniques, etc., it is far more than just out and out brawling. I will also say that it is far better regulated than boxing has ever been. If a guy gets in trouble, generally they will stop it immediately. One of boxing’s problems has been that it doesn’t do this.

        Back to the original topic, I don’t think anyone can or would dispute that any physical contact sport has an inherent amount of danger to it. The point is, those governing bodies are actively covering up evidence that it is far more dangerous than people realised. Surely that is the most important point.

      • markx says:

        An interesting point re knowing the names of boxing champions:

        My opinion is, with the benefit of hindsight, that boxers of past decades had very, very carefully structured careers.

        We now very rarely see a fighter with 50-0 win/loss or even 20-0 win/loss record. In a sport of this kind, logically, that can only occur with very careful sequential selection of opponents as a fighter builds his career to hit the bigtime. (And there was probably a bit fight rigging than we would like to think). That is not to say that there were not some very deserving champions, and anyone who saw Ali/Frazier fights or Ali/Foreman should not doubt for a moment that those were epic battles between equally skilled and determined opponents.

        Note that in modern MMA fighting,it is very common for champions to have something like a 15-7 win loss record. Think of almost all other sporting events, and consider how easily an individual fight bout can suddenly come to an end.

    • WScott says:

      Tom: I think you severely underestimate just how popular boxing used to be. Title fights used to be as big as the Superbowl and the World Series, even as recently as when I was a kid in the 70s. MMA has a devoted fan base, but it’s a niche sport compared to the heydays of boxing.
      Personally, I wonder how much of that is the result of the switch to pay-per-view fights? Championship fights used to be prime time on the Big Three networks, so casual fans were more likely to tune in.

  3. Simon says:

    Not sure how Mixed Martial Arts is a more brutal sport than boxing. More than just the hands are used but if we are on the topic of brain damage, if you are knocked down in MMA the referee will stop the fight. He will not stand you up and wait for you to regain consciousness for 10 seconds before sending you back in for another concussion which is exactly what happens in boxing.

  4. Trimegistus says:

    Turns out a game involving huge men running into each other at full speed is dangerous. Who’d have ever imagined it?

    Obviously these huge men must be prevented from doing so. For their own good.

    • tmac57 says:

      There you go with the strawman attack again. What is being asked for is full disclosure and acknowledgement by the NFL of the dangers of the sport regarding brain trauma.
      And it should be widely known by all parents who encourage very young children to engage in playing football, that there are real and irreversible risks that they are exposing their kids to,not just a fun and wholesome sport.
      Maybe if parents knew the truth,instead of being lied to by paid ‘experts’ they would think twice about letting their children get involved in football.They should at least be honestly informed to make that call.

  5. kraut says:

    Hey, look at the bright side. Most folks love to see people hurt in public exhibits. At least you don’t see too much blood flowing.
    I wonder where there is the promoter to bring back good old roman gladiator games. Now that was one hell of a show. Especially those intermission shows featuring christian and lions. Maybe nowadays it should be lions vs. immigrants.

  6. BobM says:

    What’s so different in American football? You don’t seem to get nearly so much concussion in Rugby or League despite the lack of headgear.

    • Carl says:

      Rugby and League football (American “soccer”) don’t involve running into the opponent as hard as possible to knock him out of the way, especially head-on collisions with combined speeds over 20 kph head-first. In fact both sports ban that, as I understand them.

      Rigid helmets in football may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging head-on tackles, just as boxing gloves (to protect the hands) seem to have had the unintended consequence of making punching people in the head much more common and dangerous in boxing.

      • Scott the Aussie (in Devon!) says:

        Actually Rugby Union and Rugby League particularly DO have extremely fit and powerful large men running into each other. And they don’t get a rest if they lose possession either. At present Union in the UK is having a deep and searching discussion as to how concussion is treated and diagnosed, and the long term effects on players.

  7. Ed Graham says:

    There is a flip side where some groups tell us things are bad, and release phony “proof.”

  8. Max says:

    There are already “stricter rules about hitting and especially hits to the head.”

    Texans rookie safety D.J. Swearinger’s helmet to Dustin Keller’s knee cost Keller his season.
    Keller is officially out for the year with a torn ACL and MCL according to a league source… But Swearinger told me after the game that he was forced to hit low because of the league rules that fine players for making hits to the head… Swearinger said the league should be more concerned with leg injuries than concussions.
    “The rules say you can’t hit high so I went low and I’m sorry that happened,” Swearinger said. “I would think you’d rather have more concussions than leg injuries. Leg injury, you can’t come back from that. A concussion, you be back in a couple of weeks.”

    So it’s a choice between long-term brain damage and career-ending leg injury.

  9. Dragonfly says:

    I have watched less and less football over the last few years for the very reasons cited in this blog post.

    Baseball is more relaxing to watch anyway.

  10. RoboSapien says:

    Donald, I like your articles (usually), but every time you talk about smoking, smokers, or anything related in that condescending way that you do – it makes me really not like you.

    • WScott says:

      RoboSapien: I can’t speak for DP, but I’m curious where you thought he was being condescending towards smokers or smoking? The post is very critical of the (by now well-documented) actions of the *tobacco companies* to hide the true health effects of smoking. But nowhere did he say smoking/smokers are stupid. Did you feel his criticizing the NFL for hiding the truth about brain injuries was being condescending to football players?

      • tmac57 says:

        WScott-I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that this is the offending comment:

        “Today, many places have limited “smoking areas” where the addicts huddle together in the freezing air, trying to assuage their “nic fits.” ”

        I’m no fan of smoking,and I think that it is unquestionably an addiction,but I could see where from a smoker’s point of view that that might be interpreted as condescending,if not a tad insensitive. It would not have been my choice of phrasing.

      • WScott says:

        tmac57: Fair enough. I’ve heard almost identical phrasing used by my smoker friends, but I can see where not everyone would be amused.

  11. Double Helical says:

    Good blog post! I hope the NFL does something about this problem. I, too, have given up football, but mostly because it was beginning to bore me, and I’m getting old…
    But, let me talk for a minute about the smoking section of the article: “Today, many places have limited “smoking areas” where the addicts huddle together in the freezing air, trying to assuage their “nic fits.” ”
    Has anyone seen this episode of the hilarious British TV show “The IT Crowd”? One of the actors inadvertently re-kindles her nicotine addiction, and the inside/outside dichotomy as portrayed in the show is priceless. Jen passes by the break room where everyone is happy and smiling and warm, and goes outside to smoke where the scene suddenly changes, and it’s straight out of a black-and-white Soviet tragic film from the sixties. It’s hilarious. Later, the company moves the smokers into a kiosk, which devolves into an endless trek to a packed, smoke-filled, filthy bus kiosk in what looks to be an abandoned park. RoboSapien, you should look up this show on Net Flix. Maybe you will finally quit smoking! Remember, cancer is only ONE of the many diseases caused by or exacerbated by smoking.