On February 28, ESPN reported the following:
“NFL players were diagnosed with three concussions during the 2018 playoffs, a 70 percent drop from the previous year and a continuation of a season-long trend. In total, there were 217 diagnosed concussions in practices and games during the 2018 season, compared to 291 in 2017, the league revealed Thursday during a meeting of its Head, Neck and Spine committee at the scouting combine. League officials had previously acknowledged a drop in concussions during the preseason and regular season but had not yet added the playoff numbers. There were 10 concussions during the 2017 playoffs.”
Read the article. It is attached and reports on statements by a representative of the NFL’s committee charged with monitoring and diagnosing concussions in the NFL preseason, regular season, and playoffs. According to the NFL’s committee, concussions were up in 2017 and down in 2018. If true, it’s good for players (the ones that were not concussed) and good for the public relations arm of the NFL.
But let’s consider who the messenger is. It’s the NFL, and the driving corporate goals of the NFL are (a) to expand the viewing audience to every person, TV and portable device on the planet and (b) to put more money in the owners’ pockets. Never before in the history of the NFL is the expansion of net revenue to the owners more important. So the more the NFL can say its efforts to protect players are working, the more it can say to the viewing public (and particularly to college players) that the medical threat to the League’s existence – neurodegenerative disease caused by head trauma in football – is under control and less of a threat to the League’s players.
How does this help the corporate goals? Simple. It keeps players on the field and the public tuned in. When the best players play, and the public keeps watching, the owners make more money. The League wants players on the field, the best players, and they want a steady flow of players coming through the Division I colleges to replenish the pro ranks every year with new young talent. The acronym NFL doesn’t just mean National Football League. To 22,000 retired players, it means “Not For Long.” The average career in the NFL is three years or less, so the NFL desperately needs its no-cost farm system (the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12) to keep turning out talent. The worst thing that can happen to the NFL is for great college athletes to walk off the football field and not return, to not even make themselves eligible for the draft, perhaps to decide that they’d prefer to learn to hit a curveball, run track, and forgo college and pro football altogether. The second worst thing is for its stadiums to go dark, for people to stop watching, and for the billions of owners of smartphones to give up the live streaming App for NFL games.
That is why the NFL touts numbers that show that concussions are down. It makes the game look safer to the players and the public. But ask yourselves, how reliable are any numbers the NFL generates and what do they mean?
First, let’s not forget that the League has a long track record of being accused of falsifying data to suit its business interests. The allegation that the NFL falsified medical data on concussions to deceive the players into continuing to play through concussive hits was the centerpiece of the Master Complaint the retired players filed against the NFL in 2012. A link to the Complaint can be found here. Take a look at paragraphs 145 through 248. It’s all there. Did the NFL defend that case, subject itself to depositions and discovery, and test those allegations in a trial? Not at all. The League settled the case in a heartbeat with no discovery, no depositions, and no trial. The owners did not want to take the field in a court of law against the retired players, and for good reason. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, retired players are being diagnosed within the Settlement procedures. The diagnostic results show that men of various ages, some as young as 33 years old, have a neurodegenerative disease caused by football and are unemployable. This is happening almost every day, but no one hears about it, because it is contained within a confidential Settlement system. Already, after two years, the NFL owes awards to players that total at least $630,000,000, and that number is climbing. This is far more than the NFL ever expected. The problem is far greater than the NFL ever predicted. In fact, the League confidently told the District Court in public filings that monetary awards to diagnosed players would not exceed $675,000,000 over the 65-year life of the Settlement, which is how long the Settlement is supposed to last.
So what does that tell us?
It tells us that the NFL doesn’t understand the problem, has never been good with numbers that estimate brain injury to players, and probably cannot be a reliable source on this vital health issue. Based solely on the allegations of the Master Complaint, which the NFL could not defend, the NFL has not fully recognized the magnitude of the brain injury problem to football players and, despite current efforts to address the problem, probably will not address it effectively today.
Second, the vast majority of NFL players diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease were never diagnosed on the field or in a locker room with a concussion. Maybe they had dizziness and disorientation. Perhaps they were treated with smelling salts and a pat on the back. Then they returned to the game, because their position and salary depended on being on the field, not in the trainer’s room. You can say the same about college players. Has that changed? It doesn’t seem to have changed judging by NFL games in the fall, and despite the NFL’s new protocols. Very rarely are players held out or examined for anything other than when they sustain a clear hit to the head that has the player prone on the ground or walking in circles. Everyone should ask the NFL: how do you determine when a concussion happens and when? Does the NFL count dizziness and disorientation? How about something less than that? Are there independent neurologist and neuropsychologists on the sideline who specialize in memory disorders and closed sports head injury? If not, why not? If so, who pays them? And what authority do they have to require a player to come out of a game or not return to play?
And what about baseline testing? Are players given cognitive tests in the summer to see where their abilities are in pre-season, and then again after they’ve played through the first five games of the season, and then the second five games? Does the NFL do that? If not, why not? Every player who plays in the NFL or in college should demand that. Because if a player plays five to ten games during a season and finds that his cognitive ability has been shaved down by 10 to 20% with no recorded, acknowledged, or suspected concussion, that speaks volumes. It tells him that hits are happening to him on the field that put him at risk, and no one sees those hits for what they are. The risk to the player is not just debilitating headaches, sensitivity to light and ringing in the ears. The risk could result in mental disability in 20 to 30 years and a disintegrating family. It’s not pretty. Ask any one of the players whose awards are within the $630,000,000 the NFL already owes them after just two years.
So when the NFL pronounces that “concussions are down,” don’t be fooled. The NFL owners have never been right in the past about this deadly health hazard, and there is no reason to think they are right now.