Comparison to Big Tobacco Has NFL Fuming

Met Life Stadium in New Jersey.

Despite its financial success, the National Football League has been fumbling on the public relations front the past few years. Constant episodes of domestic violence that involve its players, the bungled “Deflate-Gate” investigation and the NFL’s reputation for wrenching public funds from desperate cities in order to fund stadiums have relentlessly dogged the league. The NFL has also been sidetracked over the thousands of former players who have alleged they suffered from concussions long after they retired from the sport. The NFL has claimed for years that they have been proactive on researching the health risks related to concussions, but the New York Times has suggested that its research was highly flawed.

As with other news stories covering the concussion controversy, the NFL has been playing defense, but the NYT article has had the league’s legal team fully blitzing the newspaper (which, incidentally, is one of the few media companies still able to fund investigative journalism). What has really infuriated NFL executives within their Manhattan headquarters is the Times’ suggestion that the league has had longstanding ties to the tobacco industry. The NFL is now so angry at the allegations that they have demanded that the Times’ editors retract the story.

Clearly, the league is on the losing side of the concussion argument; one of its executives recently admitted that playing football has been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to memory loss, erratic behavior, dementia and depression. The calls for continued research amplified in 2012 when Junior Seau, a revered linebacker, shot himself at the age of 43. His brain later tested as positive for CTE, and since then his family has been vocal in urging the NFL to become more proactive when confronting head trauma and long term health.

While the league has insisted has put many resources into researching the links between concussions and CTE, the Times article has pointed out that the NFL’s research omitted over 100 reported cases of concussions, including those reportedly suffered by 1990s NFL stars Steve Young and Troy Aikman.

Now backed into a corner, the NFL is punching back, and punching hard. Dismissing the Times’ claims that NFL studies suppressed or omitted information from its studies, the league’s executive vice president, Joe Lockhart, insists that “the NFL has been at the forefront of promoting and funding independent research on these complex issues.”

But what is really giving the NFL an opportunity to distract its fans, sponsors and the American public from this ongoing concussion crisis is the Times’ outline of the relationships shared between the league and Big Tobacco. While the article immediately outlined the fact that there is no direct evidence that the NFL took its strategy from tobacco companies, its authors have demonstrated that the two industries had long shared attorneys, consultants and lobbyists. As far back as the 1970s, the NFL had hired companies who included the Tobacco Institute as a client. But in finding a straw man in its defense against the Times’ allegations, the league’s statement has retorted that “the NFL is not the tobacco industry. It had no connection to the tobacco industry.”

Of course, the definition of “connection” can be widely interpreted. But the tobacco argument is a sideshow to the larger argument over whether the NFL could have done more to protect its players from head injuries, and what can it do in the future to protect future players and guarantee the sport’s enduring popularity. This may be an annoying distraction as the league sees opportunities to expand the sport’s presence in Europe, Latin America and China, but its executives have got to focus on the mounting health problems here at home. When some of your iconic players, including Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, and Drew Brees have either said their kids will not play football, or do so with the only with the most caution, the NFL has got to step back, listen more to its players and their families, and litigate less.

Image credit: Matthew D. Britt (Flickr)