Wednesday, October 07, 2009

NFL Players and Dementia

You gotta love the PR machine that is the $7 billion a year juggernaut known as the NFL.

In response to a number of studies released during the past few years that reported finding cognitive issues in retired players, the NFL steadfastly denied the existence of “reliable” data on the issue. To counter the evidence, the league vowed to conduct its own studies and after much delay, commissioned a study by the University of Michigan. A synopsis of the committee’s findings was released last week and to the surprise of no one, except perhaps the NFL, the league’s own committee came to the same conclusion as previous studies.

It should be noted that the latest findings are preliminary. They have not been published or reviewed. But the findings suggest that former NFL players suffer memory related diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, more often than the general population. Not surprisingly, the league immediately sought to sabotage the findings of its own committee.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email message sent to The New York Times that the study was subject to shortcomings and that “there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.” Of course, Aiello is right. But just because there are billions of people living on this earth, that doesn’t mean no one has ever died.

This isn’t the first time the NFL has engaged in propaganda to counter evidence linking NFL players to cognitive issues. The University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, which works closely with the NFL Players Association, published papers in 2005 and 2007 that found increased cognitive impairment among retired NFL players compared with the general population. A member of the NFL’s concussion committee, allegedly established to conduct research into the subject of concussions in its own players, called the findings “virtually worthless.” Of course, that was when others were making conclusions. Now, it’s the league’s own committee that is sounding the warning bells.

It should be noted that the Michigan study does not link dementia to playing football or vice versa. But while the results are preliminary, and virtually every scientist of note suggests further study is warranted, the physical toll football enacts on the body – including the head - is obvious to the naked eye. Despite the safety improvements in helmets and other equipment, the human body wasn’t designed to withstand the blunt force trauma sustained by football players at any level, particularly those in the NFL.

The NFL has taken a page out of the government manifesto. When you don’t want to admit the facts, convene a committee to study the matter further. And after the committee reaches a conclusion contrary to your best interests, deny the conclusions. The reasons for such action are obvious. The NFL stands to be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in annual medical costs and disability payments for retired players if a relationship is established between the sport and the high incidence of dementia suffered by its former players.

NFL players are currently eligible for up to $110,000 per year in disability payments for physical or mental conditions developed within 15 years of retirement. But dementia may take longer than 15 years to develop, meaning a player who retired at age 32, for example, who is diagnosed with dementia at age 48 is out of luck.

Any changes to the pension-disability plan are subject to collective bargaining between the league and the union. But both parties believe there are higher priority issues currently on the table. Unless Congress pressures the parties to address the issue of dementia in retired players, as it did by holding hearings in 2007 on the league’s mistreatment of retirees, it’s unlikely that substantive changes will be made in the near future.

Aiello also told the Times, “Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports.” Of course, he’s right. But the fact that the Michigan study found NFL players are up to 19 times more susceptible to cognitive disease than members of the general population suggests a strong correlation between playing football and a player’s post-career mental health. No PR machine can spin that conclusion in a positive fashion.


Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and former Owner of The AAA Maine Guides. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at jkobritz@mindspring.com.

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