The NFL is still all worked up about that New York Times story that revealed the league’s initial studies on the link between football and CTE to have been based on bunk data. They’re so worked up, in fact, that the league’s lawyers sent a letter to the Times, demanding retraction while making vague threats of legal action.
You can read the full letter here, but here’s the very flimsy argument.
On behalf of the National Football League (“NFL” or “League”), and following up on our letter to you dated March 20, 2016, we write concerning the Times’’s March 24 lead digital story, “N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to the Tobacco Industry” (published as the lead story on page Al of the Times’?, March 25 print edition). The extensive evidence we provided to your reporters pre-publication conclusively demonstrated the falsity of both the thesis and every material aspect of this story.
Its sensational headline notwithstanding, the story did not show any meaningful “ties to the tobacco industry.” Nor did it present a shred of evidence to support its thesis that the NFL intentionally concealed concussion research data. By publishing the story, fully aware of the falsity of the underlying facts, the Times recklessly disregarded the truth and defamed the NFL, even under the public-figure Sullivan test.
Accordingly, we demand that the story immediately be retracted, and we reserve our rights more broadly. We also request that the Times’s reporters and editors who worked on this story preserve their notes, correspondence, emails, recordings and work papers and all other electronic and hard copy documents generated or received in connection with their work.
Most of the NFL’s qualms are about the Times drawing an analogy between the league’s stance on concussions and the tobacco industry’s stance on the health risks inherent in smoking. That may have been an odd angle from which to approach the story, but there’s nothing that can reasonably be described as false or defamatory in the Times’ piece.
The league’s lawyers—who sent their letter, we’ll note, under the weirdly elaborate letterhead seen at left—demand that the Times preserve all of its notes and correspondence related to the story. That’s meant to raise the boogeyman of a defamation lawsuit, that will (almost certainly) never, ever, ever, ever, ever happen, because if there’s one thing the NFL really doesn’t want, it’s all of its internal dialogue about CTE and concussions being subject to discovery.
Its toothlessness aside, what’s actually interesting about this letter is that it follows a recent pattern of the NFL taking a more aggressive stance in fighting bad PR. The league has been historically tight-lipped in the past, but newly installed VP of communications Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton press secretary and real Ari Fleischer-type flack, has taken a more guns-blazing approach:
If there’s one thing the world could really do without, it’s a tough-talkin’ NFL PR apparatus.