In November 2003, Dr. Elliot Pellman, medical adviser to the NFL and chairman of its [multiple traumatic brain injury] committee, appeared on HBO's "Inside the NFL" to discuss a report by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes that linked multiple concussions and depression among former pro players with histories of concussions. "When I look at that study, I don't believe it," Pellman said flatly. Later, however, he announced the committee would begin to study the long-term effects of concussions.
The Nov. 6, 2006, issue of ESPN The Magazine detailed the growing concerns that many top sports doctors have with the MTBI committee's methods and conclusions. Among other things, the Magazine's report showed that the committee didn't include hundreds of neuropsychological tests conducted on NFL players when studying the effects of concussions on the results of such tests. It also revealed that Pellman had fired William Barr, a neuropsychologist for the New York Jets who was concerned that Pellman might be picking and choosing what data to include in the committee's research to get results that would downplay the effects of concussions.
After more than a dozen years of studying concussions, the NFL is -- still -- just getting around to examining the long-term effects of head trauma but still -- still -- refuses to acknowledge the validity of outside research on the subject. As Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, told ESPN The Magazine, the MTBI committee "has repeatedly questioned and disagreed with the findings of researchers who didn't come from their own injury group."
The explanation is straightforward, if depressing. The NFL has used the work done so far by its concussions committee to justify league practices. And if that research turns out to be flawed, and those practices turn out to be dangerous, the league could face massive liability, financially and legally.
As they should. This is plain sorry on the part of the NFL, and Pellman is one sorry example of a doctor. A doctor's role is to treat patients, not help an organization like the NLF cover up the long-term health problems of the players off of whom they make millions. Nobody wants to shed a tear for pampered and over-paid football players, but baseball players make more money and don't have to worry about not being able to function mentally by the time they're in their forties, so why should professional football players? The NFL should get to the bottom of this issue, and figure out ways to make the game safer for players, or get players out of situations where they can do serious long-term damage to themselves. Anything less is a betrayal of their players.