It’s been three years since the NFL reached a $765 million settlement in a class-action suit filed by former players who claimed the league actively obscured the harmful effects of concussions. A big piece of that cover-up was a series of league-funded studies that downplayed the health risks associated with concussions, and have since been proven to be junk. Thanks to a new investigation from The New York Times, we now know that those studies were even more fraudulent than everyone already assumed them to be.
The Times got its hands on a database of concussions, diagnosed by team doctors from 1996-2001, that was used as the primary data set for the league’s series of studies. There were 887 diagnosed concussions in that database, but the Times discovered that more than 100 other concussions reported on team medical reports or in the press from 1996-2001 never made it into the database. Not only did the NFL’s studies draw false conclusions, it seems, they were based on fudged data.
The erasure of important data from the NFL’s studies has been come up before. In a 2009 story about Elliot Pellman—the NFL’s infamous quack doctor who spearheaded the studies—ESPN’s Peter Keating revealed that Pellman inexplicably discarded hundreds of baseline tests from his studies:
Pellman and Lovell both say they invited all teams to participate in the research (Lovell says 11 teams elected to join the study) and tried to collect as many results as they could. As Lovell puts it, “More data is always better.” Several of the doctors involved, however, tell a different story. Barr, for example, conducted 217 baseline tests from 1996 to 2001. Periodically, he forwarded results to the league, but at the time Barr learned the committee was planning to publish its results, he had sent only 149. Barr remembers finding Pellman in the Jets’ training room in 2003 and saying, “Elliot, I haven’t sent data for a year.” According to Barr, Pellman didn’t want the additional tests. “I don’t want the data to be biased because I’m with the Jets,” Barr recalls him saying, suggesting that additional results would skew the data because the Jets would be overrepresented in the sample. That made no sense to Barr. A scientific study should include, or at least address, all available data.
Barr’s wasn’t the only research that didn’t make the cut. Over the period covered by the committee’s research, Christopher Randolph, a Chicago neuropsychologist, collected baselines for 287 Bears players. He says Lovell never asked for his data, either.
But the Times, by cross referencing the NFL’s coded database with public injury and media reports, is the first to discover exactly how many diagnosed concussions were excluded from the data set. For example, there is not a single concussion from the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL’s database, despite the fact that former quarterback Troy Aikman was diagnosed with a concussion on four official injury reports from 1997-2000. The NFL’s explanation for this discrepancy is hard to swallow:
But after The Times described how it had identified missing concussions, the N.F.L. said this week that the studies, in fact, “never purported” to include all concussions.
Teams were “not mandated” to participate, the league said, only “strongly encouraged.” And some teams, a spokesman said, “did not take the additional steps of supplying the initial and/or follow-up forms.” He did not explain why some teams had not included all concussions identified by medical personnel.
It’s one thing to claim that certain teams refused to report diagnosed concussions to the league doctors conducting the studies, but it’s very hard to believe that those doctors couldn’t have been bothered to check publicly available injury reports while compiling their data. Whatever the explanation, it leaves the question of exactly how studies based on this corrupt data ended up published in peer-reviewed journals. Strangely enough, it seems no one involved in that really wanted to talk about that with Times reporters.