The NFL adopts the tobacco industry strategy

A recent study examined the brains of 111 former NFL football players and found that only one of them did not have CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the brain damage that is associated with being subject to the repeated collisions that routinely occur during games. This adds to the evidence that football poses a real threat to players.

In all, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System examined 202 brains that belonged to men who played football at all levels and were later donated for research. They found CTE in 177 of them — 87 percent.

While they found evidence of the disease across all levels of play, the highest percentage was found among those who competed at the highest level; all but one of the 111 brains belonging to ex-NFL players were diagnosed post-mortem with CTE.

It is true that this was not a randomized study and that the brains studied were those donated by concerned families, so that the likelihood of finding damage was greater since the former players must have exhibited some symptoms of cognitive deteioration for their families to think that their brains warranted further study.

What is interesting is the response of the big business that is the NFL where they feign concern and respect for the studies while trying to deflect attention away..

“The medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication, and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE. The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.”

This is so similar to the way that the tobacco industry responded to the studies that suggested that smoking caused lung cancer. They kept pointing to ‘unanswered questions’ that ‘required further study’ before any action was taken that would affect their business and profits. And they funded their own ‘studies’ that cast doubt on the findings of independent researchers. And since in science there are always unanswered questions, they could keep stalling and stalling until the pressure became too great to resist. Now they have shifted their attention overseas where the regulatory agencies are not as strict.

As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway show in their book Merchants of Doubt (I reviewed the book and the documentary based on it here), this technique that was used in the case of smoking was repeated with acid rain and the ozone layer and is being used now against the evidence of climate change. The NFL, seeing its entire business threatened, is following the same strategy.

Sadly, many fans will refuse to see that they are part of the problem, being duped into supporting wealthy people despite the serious risks to the players.


  1. rgmani says

    I would have no problems with the NFL or with college or even high school football if the people in charge of the sport were upfront about the risks and all the players (and parents in the case of high school players) were informed about how bad things can get and went into it with their eyes open. Instead, I find that those in charge of the sport are doing their best to downplay the risks or cast doubt on the findings of these studies. Even more alarming is the attitude of the people playing the sport -- even the ones who ought to know better are in a state of denial. The only ones who seem to truly realize how bad things can get are the ones already afflicted. Makes it very hard for me to watch this sport anymore.

    -- RM

  2. Mano Singham says


    I used to be a fan but now I simply refuse to watch it. My distaste started with the greed of the owners who squeeze cities for fancy stadiums from which they get even more money but the brain damage finally pushed me over the edge.

  3. Holms says

    In corporate speak, a ‘wide range of experts’ means that they will welcome -- and indeed actively seek out -- disagreement with such studies.

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