The NFL is like the tobacco industry

Last evening I watched the PBS Frontline program League of Denial that I wrote about yesterday. (You can watch the program here.) It showed how playing football can cause traumatic brain injury that can occur from the normal give and take of playing football, even without any concussions. Autopsies of players as young as 18 have shown them having a particular form of brain damage called chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE).

What was fascinating was how the NFL has followed so closely the tactics of the tobacco industry in order to deny culpability. They first created their own team of scientists to publish papers showing that playing football had no connection to any form of brain damage. When the correlations became too strong to deny, they said that no causal mechanism had been shown. They then used those papers to argue that there is still a scientific controversy that needed to be studied further and that while that was being done they were taking steps to warn players of the dangers.

Then when they were threatened with a big class action lawsuit by former players, they settled in September of this year with what seemed like a large settlement ($765 million) towards medical treatment but this is peanuts for that profit making machine. But what they wanted and got from the settlement was to avoid any admission of culpability and testifying under oath and having to reveal what they knew about brain damage and when.

But the NFL has only bought itself some time. Autopsies of the brains of 45 former players showed that 44 of them have CTE. As players get bigger, stronger, and faster (aided by drugs), these head injuries are going to get worse and there are going to be more lawsuits. Some former players say they would not let their own children play. Former offensive lineman Harry Carson of the New York Giants, a member of the football Hall of Fame, is one of those critics.

The bizarre thing is how some fans complain that even the small measures now being taken to give added protection to players is sissifying the game and a sign of the wussification of America. They remind me of spectators at the gladiatorial games, seeking satisfaction from the brutality inflicted on others, while they themselves sit safely as spectators.