When it comes to the NFL and concussions, denial runs deep

“The Dying Gaul,” a Roman marble copy of a  Hellenistic  work of the late 3rd century B.C.  Capitoline Museums , Rome.

“The Dying Gaul,” a Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic work of the late 3rd century B.C. Capitoline Museums, Rome.

The first thing I thought about was “The Dying Gaul.”

That poignant Roman marble – a copy of a late Hellenistic work that depicts a Celtic warrior wounded on the ground – was precisely what I flashed on when I saw the photo of Steve Young on the front page of The New York Times March 25.

It was as if it were yesterday – if yesterday were 1999. Young, then the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, lay crumpled, seemingly lifeless after a concussive hit on the field. The photo accompanied the story headlined “NFL Concussion Studies Found to Have Deep Flaws.” 

It turns out that more than 100 head injuries – more than 10 percent of the total – were omitted from the league’s early research, which, not surprisingly, concluded that the problem was less severe in the NFL than it actually is.

Steve Young in 2009. Detail of a photograph by Marianne O’Leary.

Steve Young in 2009. Detail of a photograph by Marianne O’Leary.

The research was based on data accumulated from 1996 to 2001. But apparently NFL clubs weren’t required to provide information and not every club did. Among the missing head injuries were those to Young and Troy Aikman, the QBs of the Niners and Dallas Cowboys respectively. This is particularly interesting because their concussions – the results of which were no memory of winning touchdowns and subsequent early retirement – were widely reported in the press at the time they occurred and are among the most vivid parts of the riveting book/PBS documentary “League of Denial,” chronicling the head-buried-in-the-sand approach the NFL has taken to the concussion crisis. 

The bombshell report comes at a moment when the NFL has acknowledged a link between concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in the form of league health and safety veep Jeff Miller’s comments to Congress. But with the league and concussions, it always seems to be one step forward, two back. Now the NFL is trying to counter The Times’ story, with ads on all the investments it’s made in safety. 

Three years ago, the NFL settled a lawsuit with retired players over a concussion cover-up for $765 million. Some players have appealed the settlement, skeptical of the NFL’s research. That skepticism now looks like a brilliant intuition, particularly as the same Times article – by Alan Schwarz, who appears in “League of Denial,” Walt Bogdanich and Jacqueline Williams – links the NFL to big tobacco in terms of shared key “players” in the league’s effort to control the concussion narrative. (Preston R. Tisch, the late New York Giants’ co-owner, was also an owner of Lorillard, the cigarette company, and Dorothy C. Mitchell, a lawyer who defended the Tobacco Institute, provided legal oversight to the NFL’s concussion research committee.)

The Times isn’t equating concussions with smoking, which, according to the article, kills 1,300 a day in the United States. But the newspaper is certainly drawing a parallel between the way the NFL and tobacco have couched the lethal results of their industries.

Next to the concussion story, The Times ran the obituary of running back-turned-player advocate Ken Turner, the former Philadelphia Eagle and New England Patriot who said he sustained countless concussions and who died March 24 of ALS.

He was 46.