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Flag on the Play: How the NFL Just Took the Ultimate Helmet-to-Helmet Hit

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In a scathing exposé, the New York Times may have just ripped the lid off the NFL’s proverbial cookie jar. With talks of ties to “Big Tobacco” and inconsistencies in concussion figures, fans and players alike have to be wondering one thing: how can anyone trust Roger Goodell and the NFL anymore?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, what a tangled web the NFL weaves.

We all knew this day was coming. It was inevitable. The three-headed beast nipping at the league’s heels as it ran away was going to catch up to it eventually. Books, movies, interviews, lawsuits, it was all a perfect storm for the NFL, a storm that all centered around one word: concussions.

They’ve been the hot-button topic for years now and that shows no signs of changing anytime soon. This issue has divided players and owner and a whole football community. Is it safe to play football? Are the NFL liars? All valid questions. All that need answers.

The concussion issue has lingered, slowly becoming a black-eye to the league. Former-players have died. Many more can barely walk or remember simple things. It's a dilemma, one that we as a public might have known about long ago, but something happened. It was brushed aside like no big deal, not taken seriously. We were lead to believe one thing, while the opposite was true.

But, to truly understand this whole mess, you have to travel backwards on the timeline, back to during the days of the Tagliabue regime.

The Build-Up

The year is 1994. Things are different then for the NFL. Concussions are not talked about yet by the NFL’s front office, but their shadow is starting to hang over the league. As a result, the league forms a groundbreaking new committee, the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee (MTBI), to handle all brain-related injuries. On the outside, it makes the public perceives that the league is putting forth an effort to take better care of it’s cash-cows, aka the players. But, perception is key and the NFL knew this. Peel back the outer layer and the MTBI is nothing more than a façade, a diversion, of sorts.

You see, the league was not actually serious about this committee, despite how it looked to the fans and the media. Then-New York Jets team doctor Elliot Pellman was named chair of this committee, but there was one problem: he had zero experience with the human brain or any brain, for that matter. Still think the NFL was serious about the growing concussion problem? Take a gander at this quote from Pellman.

"We discuss it on the list of things every time we have a league meeting … We think the issue of knees, of drugs and steroids and drinking is a far greater problem, according to the number of incidents." – Elliot Pellman, Newsweek 1994

Fast-forward now a calendar year to ’95. What should be a banner year for the league in its fight against brain injuries is quite the opposite. Leigh Steinberg, agent for QB’s Troy Aikman and Steve Young, would deliver a chilling forecast of the effect concussions have on the brain in Newport Beach. Aikman would retire six years later, directly citing concussion issues (as well as back issues) as the reason behind hanging ‘em up.

1997 brought with it the first incarnation of the league’s "Return to Play" rules, a weak attempt on the NFL’s part at again showing concern for these men. The American Academy of Neurology would work in conjunction with the league in the creation of the rules, saying repeated hits to the head can cause long-term brain damage.

What would happen next would be the foundation for all we hear about today.

Mike Webster

In April of 1999, former-Steeler Mike Webster would go public with claims that football gave him dementia. After years of dealing with brain-related issues, Webster maintained his claims, taking them to the league retirement board. In October of the same year, he was ruled "totally and permanently" disabled.

The board’s findings were never published by the NFL. Had it not been for two ESPN reporters, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, digging this up, it could have been buried by the league for a long, long time.

With the board’s findings now public, the MTBI rebutted, claiming serious brain injuries were a rarity in the No Fun League. Pellman would even go as far as to tell The Chicago Tribune "the numbers have remained remarkably the same throughout the league. […] there are about 180 incidents per year of mild traumatic brain injury. We’re talking the majority are minor injuries."

For those of you keeping track at home, that’s roughly the one-millionth red flag that's been raised. And we haven’t even made it to 2000 yet. And, boy, was 2000 a doozy.

The first clash of 2000 between doctors and the NFL kicks off the new century, with new research implying that concussions could lead to serious neurological problems. Doctors Barry Jordan and Julian Bailes present the findings of their survey-based research to the American Academy of Neurologists, eliciting shock from those in attendance. All the while, the MBTI, lead by Pellman, was denouncing the American Academy of Neurologists and their 1997 "Return to Play" rules, essentially saying they just made it all up as they went.

The Discovery

Remember Mike Webster? He would sadly pass away in 2002. Yet while he was no longer on this Earth, his brain was and that was the key. At least to a new, young, dedicated doctor it was.

His name was Bennet Omalu. A lot of us have heard of this man and for good reason. When Webster died, Omalu was able to get his hands on the brain. He needed to study it. And that he did. He studied and studied, pouring over it all until he had come across something both amazing and terrifying. Something that had never been identified in the brain of a football player.

Bennet Omalu had discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

Most of us know what happens next, so I will fast-forward though it. Omalu discovers CTE, making him public enemy number one in the eyes of the NFL. More research comes out regarding concussions and the NFL continues to blow smoke to try and cover it up. The league begins publishing their own scientific findings in the science journal Neurosurgery. They then release a study, claiming 92% of players concussed recover quickly and are safe to play the same day. Another player dies, another brain examination by Omalu and more CTE is found. The league then publishes another study claiming there are no effects of repeat concussions and that brain disease does not affect football players.

A new month brings a new study, this time claiming NFL players are super-human and their brains have evolved to the point that they are no longer susceptible to brain injuries. I kid you not, that happened and was published as science. Like I said earlier, these were different times.

A new month also brought a new player death, this time a result of a suicide. Terry Long takes his own life in 2005 after drinking antifreeze. The brain is studied and again, Omalu finds CTE. With this, coupled with other CTE findings, he goes public. At the same time, Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz and Dr. Julian Bailes also publish their own study, alerting the public to the fact that research suggests that dementia is tied to repeated hits to the head in pro football players. At this point, the NFL is in red-alert mode. So, what do they do? They throw Omalu under the bus.

The "fallacious reasoning" line could be one of the most famous lines in all of sports. After reading over Omalu’s findings regarding CTE, the NFL just dismissed it as "fallacious reasoning" and went on a smear campaign to sour everyone’s opinion of Omalu. They accused him of fraud and wanted that study redacted from Neurosurgery. Why? Because he was a threat. The league knew what he was saying was true, but he chose the wrong side of this fight and he was going to pay.

Eventually, regimes changed. Omalu had been buried by the league. Tagliabue retired his post and Roger Goodell took over as the commissioner of the National Football League. The MTBI was disbanded in 2009 by Goodell, who replaced it with a committee of respected persons in the medical field, not guys the the back pockets of the league. While things seemed on the up-and-up, there was a shift coming and nothing could prepare Goodell for the impact it would have.

The New York Times

Let’s jump ahead in the timeline to present day. Concussions had gone on the backburner recently, much to the relief of the league I’m sure. It wasn’t until just two days ago when The New York Times published findings of their own that things started ramping back up. The Times article rips the NFL, exposing their blatant disregard for the facts, while borrowing strategy from tobacco companies (i.e. denying their product is harmful to those that partake in it).

The NFL’s reply did not take long.

READ: NFL's Full Statement

That very same day, Joe Lockhart, NFL Executive Vice President—Communications, released a statement on behalf of the league, charging The Times with spreading falsehoods.

"Today’s New York Times story on the National Football League is contradicted by clear facts that refute both the thesis of the story and each of its allegations. As The Times itself states: "The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco." Despite that concession, the paper published pages of false innuendo and sheer speculation based on a mere handful of anecdotal and cursory references, twisted and contorted out of context, from a smattering of documents out of millions found on the tobacco litigation website." – Joe Lockhart

The Times would later amend the article, stating there was no concrete evidence linking "Big Tobacco" to the NFL, but the damage was already done. Eyes were opened, heads were turned. The things that were said could not be taken back, no matter how many times the article was scrubbed and edited. People don’t just forget. But, things couldn’t get worse for Goodell and the league, right?

Wrong. They got worse. A lot worse.

Congress Gets Involved

Just a day prior, a report surfaced that backed the NFL even further into the corner.

Those studies conducted by the league from ’96-’01 and published in Neurosurgery, you remember those right? Well about that… As it turns out, the NFL may have been fudging those numbers pretty hard to save their own rears.

ESPN released a story, stemming from The Times article, charging the NFL with purposefully omitting more than 100 concussions from those studies as a way to influence the result to swing more in their favor. The research was published in a total of 13 peer-reviewed articles and was supposed to include a full breakdown of all concussions between 1996 and 2001. Instead, more than 10 percent were omitted from the study, giving the results a vastly different look. Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the men who peer-reviewed the league’s research, openly criticizing it, told The Times "It should be an unmistakable red flag that a team does not report any concussions over multiple years." And he’s right. It should be.

To add to this dumpster fire, Congress is now throwing its hat in the ring, wanting a piece of the NFL. 4 total members of Congress are now openly questioning why the NFL tried to mettle in selection process of the lead researcher for a study on football and brain disease. Congress’s letter outlining a several month-long process in which the league tried to intervene and ultimately stop the selection of Dr. Robert Stern as the lead researcher. Stern is on record as being highly-critical of the NFL’s handling of this ordeal. In his place, the league tried to push various researchers, all with long ties back to the NFL.

Initially, the league was going to fund a $16-million study on the effects of CTE and how it related to football (the $16-million was part of an unrestricted $30-million gift to the Nation Institutes of Health). The study would be conducted by the National Institutes of Health (the same group who acquired the brain of the late Junior Seau). Said study was set to begin, until Dr. Stern, of Boston University, was selected to be the lead researcher. The NFL pulled an Omalu, smearing Stern’s name and attempting to discredit him, saying he was biased and there would be a conflict of interest if he were to be selected. NIH continued with him as their researcher and, poof, the funding disappeared.

READ: Congress' Letter to the NFL

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It’s clear that the NFL is afraid. They want this gone and they are doing whatever they can to sweep it under the rug. What isn’t clear is how far has this gone. How deep exactly does this alleged cover-up go? With Congress now snooping around and the media hot on trail, we may know a lot more about this soon.

In the meantime, a dark cloud hangs over the NFL. The coming days will be interesting, seeing how they play out. I promise a lot of eyes will be glued to TV screens, waiting to see what information breaks next.

As a fan, though, I feel insulted almost. All signs point to the NFL not only lying about this but overtly covering it up out of fear it would cost them money. I get it, the NFL is in business to make money, but there comes a point in which you have to look after your employees. If your business is killing them and there is credible research to corroborate those claims, you don't ignore it. It's disgusting and more importantly, it's wrong, morally. These findings may have saved the life of a man like Junior Seau or Terry Long. Instead, the NFL has apparently pushed their own agenda ahead of protecting their players.

Dementia and CTE are killers. Not only do they destroy the brain, they cause the affected to lose more and more control over themselves. Depression rates are high among retired players. We're talking about men who have been in a team environment their whole lives. They live with their teammates. They see them more than they do their own families. When they retire, that's all gone. The transition can be tough as it is, they don't need to also be dealing with this, too.

By hell or high water, the people will get the answers they demand, the answers they deserve. Players are starting to speak out. We have seen a multitude of guys retire young the past two off-seasons. A shift is occurring right before our eyes.

To paraphrase the famous Game of Thrones quote, brace yourselves.

Changes are coming.

All Quotes Courtesy of The New York Times, the NFL and PBS