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.


  1. left0ver1under says

    Some may see Terry Bradshaw as a hypocrite for working on football broadcasts, but he has openly said he wouldn’t let his son play.

    “If I had a son today, and I would say this to all our audience and our viewers out there, I would not let him play football,” Bradshaw said during a Wednesday appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

    “There will be a time in the next decade where we will not see football as it is, I believe,” the former Pittsburgh Steelers great said.

    People joke about Bradshaw’s intelligence, but compared to some former players, he got off lucky. Chris Miller suffered five concussions in 14 months. I remember an interview he did where – in a slurred voice, typical of post-concussion syndrome – he talked about a “comeback”. He didn’t even have the mental faculties to know how hurt he was.

  2. DonDueed says

    First, I believe the correct term is chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

    Second, you have highlighted the two parallels that have struck me since this connection has been revealed (and anyone who follows the sport closely knows that this is hardly new information, just more convincing as time goes on).

    The analogies to both the tobacco industry and the Roman gladiator ethos are unavoidable. Bread and circuses, indeed.

  3. DaveL says

    When the correlations became too strong to deny, they said that no causal mechanism had been shown.

    I guess they must just be staying open to the possibility that brain damage makes people enjoy playing football. Which is much more likely, you see, than the idea that hitting your head again and again and again and again and again might cause brain trauma.

  4. Henry Gale says

    I watched the program and thought it was informative. However I did think they downplayed the potential role of genetics. When 18 year olds with no history of concussions are found with CTE I’m not sure the first theory should be the accumulation of minor hits.

    Is there some generic trait that may predispose someone to CTE and seek out violent activities like football?

    That said, I wouldn’t miss football a bit if it disappeared tomorrow.

  5. Mano Singham says

    That is a good point. It is hard to exclude other possible causes. I suspect that there has been no suggestion as yet that CTE runs in families, the usual marker that it may have a genetic base.

  6. left0ver1under says

    I recent bit of good news on this front is a decision by Hockey Canada (the governing body for non-professional leagues and the national team). All bodychecking is banned in leagues with children 13 years or younger. Other countries do that already or will likely follow suit.

    Thirteen is about the age where children’s brains and skulls are fully formed, where they begin to be able to withstand minor contact. It doesn’t guarantee no problems will occur, but it definitely reduces collisions at an age when players don’t have good judgement or the knowledge to consider consequences.

  7. left0ver1under says

    One more news item. In 2010, the coach of a team chose to forfeit a game voluntarily He did it because of the size difference between his players, reportedly an average of 50-80 pounds per player. The players on the two teams may have been the same age, but the difference in talent and size was like playing boys against men.

    The school’s administrator and athletic director were called “coward” by some media and many “sports fans” for the decision to act in the interests of player safety. Very few commended them for making the right call.

  8. Nick Gotts says

    There’s a similar problem with soccer, associated with heading the ball (i.e., something moderately hard and heavy repeatedly hitting your head at speeds up to 50mph), although I don’t know whether it’s comparably serious. I’ve no doubt we’ll see similar denialist tactics from the immensely lucrative global soccer industry if it is.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *