For two decades, the NFL has tried to deny growing scientific evidence that links football and head injuries, according to excerpts published Wednesday by multiple web sites from a forthcoming book.
In "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth," written by investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, the NFL is portrayed as an organization that exerted its influence in an attempt to sweep aside independent research and fund studies of its own on the cumulative impact of hits on the football field.
The authors write that the denials started in 1994 with then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue and continue today with commissioner Roger Goodell.
The book noted that Tagliabue was responsible for forming the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and the league continually cited research that claimed "NFL players were impervious to brain damage." The committee asserted that concussions were minor injuries that did not lead to long-term problems with the brain.
"Tagliabue dismissed the matter as a 'pack journalism issue' and claimed that the NFL experienced 'one concussion every three or four games,' which he said came out to 2.5 concussions for every '22,000 players engaged.'
In late August, the NFL reached a settlement in the concussion lawsuit involving more than 4,500 retired players or a proposed $765 million. But the league did not admit it was at fault.
The NFL did not coooperate with the authors on the book. League spokesman Greg Aiello declined comment on Wednesday.
The authors said they conducted more than 200 interviews and pored over thousands of pages of documents. Among the excerpts from Sports Illustrated:
"Late in 1994, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue appeared with two other commissioners, the NBA's David Stern and the NHL's Gary Bettman, in the auditorium at New York City's 92nd Street to discuss the state of their respective leagues. The panel's moderator was the journalist David Halberstam, who had gone on to a career of writing books, including several about sports, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War for The New York Times.
"After dispensing with questions about labor relations and league finances, Halberstam turned to the NFL's growing concussion problem. Tagliabue dismissed the matter as a "pack journalism issue" and claimed that the NFL experienced "one concussion every three or four games," which he said came out to 2.5 concussions for every "22,000 players engaged."
"For Halberstam, it was a moment of déjà vu. He seemed to be taken back to the days of the Five O'Clock Follies, the name the Saigon press corps bestowed upon the surreal, statistics-crammed U.S. government press briefings. Halberstam compared the NFL commissioner with the U.S. defense secretary of the 1960s. "I feel I'm back in Vietnam hearing (Robert) McNamara give statistics," he told the audience, which howled.
"Not long afterward, the NFL announced its own scientific initiative. At Tagliabue's behest, the league said, it was assembling a committee of experts to study concussions. It would be called the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee. The name itself, some researchers said, suggested the NFL's benign view of the problem.
"In fact the committee, which held its first meeting in February 1995 at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, was made up almost entirely of NFL insiders. Nearly half the members were team doctors, the same men who had been sending concussed players back on the field for years. There were two trainers, a consulting engineer and an equipment manager. The committee did have one neurologist, Ira Casson, who had studied boxers and had made the recommendation to Jets receiver Al Toon that he retire in 1992 because of concussions, and a neurosurgeon, Hank Feuer, who worked for the Colts. The committee's epidemiologist -- the man charged with analyzing much of the committee's research -- was John Powell, the numbers cruncher behind the NFL's claim that concussions had held steady at one every three or four games.
"The most perplexing choice was Tagliabue's handpicked chairman: Elliot Pellman. With the commissioner's endorsement, Pellman, the Jets' team doctor, had instantly become one of the most influential concussion researchers in the country, yet he had not produced a single piece of scientific literature on the subject. This was almost certainly due in part to his medical specialty, rheumatology, which deals primarily with bone and joint disorders such as arthritis. Pellman was genial and stout, a balding 41-year-old routinely described by colleagues as "a good administrator." Through his contacts with the NFL, Pellman would also come to work as a top medical adviser with other leagues, including the NHL and Major League Baseball. One executive who worked closely with Pellman described him as a kind of medical "concierge" whose primary responsibilities were to administer flu shots and recommend specialists.
"The most complete professional biography of Pellman would be assembled years later by The New York Times after the newspaper discovered in 2005 that he had exaggerated his credentials in a biography he had sent to a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Pellman had claimed that he obtained his medical degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In reality he had attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, and received his medical degree from the New York State Department of Education. He also reported that he was an associate clinical professor at New York City's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, when, in fact, he was an assistant clinical professor, an honorary position held by thousands of doctors, and didn't teach at the school.
"Pellman's views on concussions were perfectly aligned with NFL doctrine at the time. In 1994 he told SI that "concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk."
"Former players described how Pellman, as the Jets' doctor, often allowed concussed athletes back on the field. One running joke on the team involved three words -- Red Brick Broadway -- that Pellman had players recite to determine if they were able to play after a concussion. According to Kevin Mawae, who played center for the Jets for eight seasons, "The three words were always the same. He would leave you and come back before the next series, and you'd go, 'Red Brick Broadway. I'm ready to go.' "
"Once, Mawae said, he took a knee to the head and blacked out. "Next thing I know I'm laying prostrate on the ground," he said. After performing a "systems check," Pellman and the Jets' medical staff allowed Mawae to return for the next series, but the player says "my teammates were telling me that I was making calls that weren't even in our playbook."
"Multiple sources said Pellman had been Tagliabue's personal physician, and they believed that was partly why he was named chairman of the MBTI committee. "That's my understanding," said Mark Lovell, a Pittsburgh neuropsychologist who worked with the Steelers and joined the committee at its inception. In a statement to ESPN, Tagliabue acknowledged being treated by Pellman but not until October 1997, three years after the formation of the MTBI committee. The commissioner said Pellman got the job "based on his experience in sports medicine ... and recommendations from Jets ownership and management." The committee didn't publish its first research until October 2003 -- six years after Tagliabue became Pellman's patient. Pellman would continue as one of the commissioner's personal doctors until '06."
"Lovell was put in charge of setting up the NFL's neuropsychological testing program, which he based on the model that he and Joseph Maroon, a Pittsburgh neurosurgeon, had created for the Steelers. The league gave Lovell $12,000 in seed money to spread the gospel of neuro-psychological testing. He traveled from city to city, team to team, armed with a letter of support from Tagliabue, who wrote, "We strongly recommend that all clubs in the NFL implement such a testing program so that neuropsychological data is available to club physicians, or other treating physicians, in the event of player concussions."
"By the end of 2001, the NFL had gathered a wealth of data on concussions in the league. All but three teams -- the Vikings, Panthers and Cowboys -- were using some form of the Lovell and Maroon test battery. The MTBI committee had conducted biomechanical reconstructions on crash-test dummies and completed a six-year epidemiological survey involving hundreds of players. The committee was ready to publish its research. But where?
"There are hundreds of scientific and medical journals dealing with issues involving the brain, sports or both. But only one had an NFL consultant as its editor in chief. Michael L.J. Apuzzo was a professor of neurosurgery at USC who in 1992 had been appointed editor in chief of Neurosurgery, the journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Apuzzo's specialty was stereo-tactic neurosurgery, which uses three-dimensional mapping to place probes deep inside the brain. He had produced a 2,540-page textbook titled Brain Surgery: Complication Avoidance and Management and helped design instruments for microsurgery.
"Some people around the NFL also considered Apuzzo something of a jock sniffer. Among his many endeavors, Apuzzo worked the sidelines as a consultant to the Giants. He was clearly thrilled by his association with the NFL. After working the 2001 Super Bowl between the Giants and the Ravens, Apuzzo told an interviewer, "When I was in the military I worked in a nuclear-powered submarine where we'd be submerged for three months doing very dangerous things. We were dependent on each other for life and death, and it was an extremely moving bonding experience. Until this game I'd never experienced anything else like it."