Since 1994, the NFL’s concussion committee has released research downplaying the effects and dangers of concussions in professional football. The group has received strong criticism for its work, but the league has consistently stood by this research and regularly cited it when discussing head trauma in the NFL.
However, The New York Times has uncovered evidence that the studies were much more flawed than anyone imagined.
According to the report, the data used for the research published by the NFL’s concussion group excluded over 100 diagnosed concussions. This isn’t just an issue of misdiagnosis, either. The research excludes serious brain injuries experienced by famous players like Steve Young and Troy Aikman, despite these injuries appearing in weekly injury reports from the league at the time. By using this incomplete data, the committee was able to not only make concussions appear less frequent than they really were – they were able to downplay the severity of these concussions as well.
When questioned by The Times about the missing injuries in the research, officials from the NFL conceded that “the clubs were not required to submit their data and not every club did.” The league also said it should have been made clearer, but denied that the missing cases were part of an effort to “alter or suppress the rate of concussions.”
The league also says it never purported to include all concussions in their research, but the actual studies as published tell a different story.
One paper says, “It was understood that any player with a recognized symptom of head injury, no matter how minor, should be included in the study.” Another states, “all NFL teams participated” and “all players were therefore part of this study.”
Public statements from the committee also emphasized the completeness and thoroughness of the data.
According to the data obtained by The Times, approximately 10 percent or more of head injuries diagnosed by team doctors were missing from the study, including two sustained by Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, who was later forced to retire due to brain injuries. The Jets’ team physician, Dr. Pellman, led the research and was the lead author on every paper released by the committee.
One explanation given by the league for why players may not have been included in the data is that players are known to often hide concussion symptoms from team doctors or that some brain injuries can be so short-lasting they go unnoticed. But, the majority of the concussions omitted in the research did not go unnoticed at the time.
The bulk of the missing concussions were included in the NFL’s public injury reports, which means the injuries were diagnosed and reported to the league. Others were reported to media after games but did not appear on injury reports. This is likely because the player’s recovered quickly and were cleared to compete in the next game.
Several teams had staggeringly incomplete concussion data. The database does not include any information regarding concussions involving the Dallas Cowboys for all six seasons the league collected data. Other teams listed no concussions for years at a time. Despite this, the committee included games played by these teams when calculating overall concussion rate per time on the field, which produces a significantly lower rate.
Interestingly, a Cowboys spokesman told The Times that the team had participated and he was not sure why data from the team did not appear in the studies.
Injuries were also mischaracterized in the database to appear less severe. According to committee records, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner experienced a concussion on Dec. 24, 2000. This concussion supposedly healed in two days in their report. However, Warner’s concussion symptoms lasted more than four weeks, preventing him from playing in the Pro Bowl that year.
Despite this evidence, the NFL says it still stands by its findings and released a statement saying “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.”
These new revelations add to the growing body of evidence suggesting the NFL knowingly misrepresented and downplayed the severe risks of brain injuries in football well after they were known. Nonetheless, the new information discredits the NFL’s past research and casts further doubt on their recent research activities.
As concussion committee member Dr. Joseph Waeckerle told The Times: “If somebody made a human error or somebody assumed the data was absolutely correct and didn’t question it, well, we screwed up. If we found it wasn’t accurate and still used it, that’s not a screw-up; that’s a lie.”