We have a clearer picture of how the NFL will combat the threat that degenerative brain disease poses to a business that hopes it will achieve $27 billion in annual revenue by 2027.
The playbook is thick, with a gameplan that includes heavily lobbying members of a congressional committee reviewing concussion research, putting out a cohesive message that the science isn’t yet conclusive on the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and revamping its public-relations approach by hiring a person wise in the ways of politics to rebut stories it deems negative.
One component of the NFL’s approach is using its influence with politicians. Its political action committee, according to the San Jose Mercury News, has given nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions to 41 of 54 members of the congressional committee reviewing concussion research. MapLight, a Berkeley, Calif., group told the newspaper that campaign finance data since 2008 shows that the NFL’s Gridiron PAC has supported members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that began informal hearings.
It was during a round table on Capitol Hill on March 14 that Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, was asked if there was a link between playing football and CTE. He answered: “The answer to that question is certainly yes.”
The NFL had little choice but to support the statement, the first by a senior league official acknowledging such a link exits. But the NFL used its annual meetings this week to paint a much less clear picture. Commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn’t directly answer a question from reporters about whether he believed there’s a link, though he went on to say that Miller was only re-stating what has long been the league’s position. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair weren’t so sure.
“That’s absurd,” Jones told The Post’s Mark Maske about a possible connection. “There’s no data that in any way creates a knowledge. There’s no way that you could have made a comment that there is an association and some type of assertion. In most things, you have to back it up by studies. And in this particular case, we all know how medicine is. Medicine is evolving.”
Jones added: “We have millions of people that have played this game, have millions of people that are at various ages right now that have no issues at all. None at all. So that’s where we are. That didn’t alter at all what we’re doing about it. We’re going to do everything we can to understand it better and make it safer.”
McNair agreed, telling ESPN.com: “We don’t know does CTE exist among people who’ve never had any contact? We don’t know. Because when you’re alive they can’t check for it,” McNair said, according to ESPN.com. “The only players, the brains that have been checked, were ones who clearly were having problems. So it wasn’t a scientific sample that they were dealing with. We’ve got thousands of players who are not suffering from dementia of any type. So we have a lot to learn yet.”
The league has stepped up its public relations as well as its influence in Washington, with new jobs given to Joe Lockhart and Cynthia Hogan. Lockhart, a White House press secretary and senior adviser during the Clinton administration, is the NFL’s new executive vice president of communications and Hogan, a deputy assistant to the president and counsel to the vice president from 2009-13 in the Obama administration, is now the senior vice president of public policy and government affairs.
On the heels of mixed signals the NFL has sent came a story Thursday in the New York Times, which reported that the league’s previous concussion research was “more flawed than previously known” and looked at the relationship between some with league ties and Big Tobacco.
“Concussions can hardly be equated with smoking, which kills 1,300 people a day in the United States, and The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco. But records show a long relationship between two businesses with little in common beyond the health risks associated with their products,” the story states.
It goes on to note:
In a letter to The Times, a lawyer for the league said, “The NFL is not the tobacco industry; it had no connection to the tobacco industry,” which he called “perhaps the most odious industry in American history.”
Still, the records show that the two businesses shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants. Personal correspondence underscored their friendships, including dinner invitations and a request for lobbying advice.
The Times’ investigation points out that many teams withheld concussion information on more than 100 cases, including those involving Troy Aikman and Steve Young. That led to studies that were flawed, whether innocently or intentionally.
The NFL faced criticism for being unresponsive during its 2014 domestic violence crisis, but that’s the old way of doing business. This time, the NFL fired back. It issued a lengthy statement with a six-point rebuttal in which it said the Times “published pages of innuendo and speculation for a headline with no basis in fact.” Among other things, the statement said:
The studies that are the focus of the Times’ story used data collected between 1996-2001. They were necessarily preliminary and acknowledged that much more research was needed. Since that time, the NFL has been on the forefront of promoting and funding independent research on these complex issues. Further, the data from the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee studies have not been used in any way by the current Head, Neck and Spine Committee in its research on player health and safety. All of the current policies relating to player medical care and the treatment of concussions have been carefully developed in conjunction with independent experts on our medical committees, the NFLPA, and leading bodies such as the CDC.
Calling the Times’ story “sensationalized,” the statement concludes: “Contact sports will never be concussion-free, but we are dedicated to caring for our players, not just throughout long careers but over the course of long lives.”
The NFL wasn’t done there, though.
Lockhart and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash followed up with a lengthy memo (read it here) in which it promises “chief executives” and “club presidents” that “we will continue to press both the Times and other media outlets to print facts, not innuendo and speculation. Today’s piece, unfortunately, is very much on the latter side of that line.”
And Lockhart followed up with an even longer statement (read it here) in the late afternoon, concluding: “The facts, fairly read, are clear. The NFL is not the tobacco industry. It had no connection to the tobacco industry. Nor did it follow the tobacco industry playbook to conceal data to skew scientific research. The Times had the facts – now you do.”