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Keith Strudler: The New York Times Vs The NFL

For all the listeners who work in academia, this NFL story is familiar. It’s not that you all research football and concussions and CTE, or at least I don’t think you do, but you’ve all heard about misleading or unethical research. It happens across the academic landscape, and, in the rare case it’s unearthed, usually results in public rebuke or punishment or, in the most egregious of cases, dismissal. But, to be fair, there’s plenty of bad research out there, and I’d guess almost all of it unintentionally so. Professors, despite our often lofty ambitions, are just like everyone else. We do good work and bad work and have good days and bad ones. So not everything that comes to manuscript is earth shattering or ground breaking, and some of it’s not even honest. Just like what happens at most every other work environment in America, big companies on down.

Such is the quandary around the NFL, who the New York Times recently reported omitted over 100 concussions in the data set of concussions league-wide from 1996 to 2001, a data set that included 887 samples. This data set was the foundation of considerable published academic research on the long term effect of concussions in football. It also was used in determining the NFL’s $765 million dollar settlement to help former players suffering from CTE, a settlement that will now come into considerable question. The Times, through some pretty nifty data matching, was able to determine who and when didn’t offer their data, which includes several high profile cases. For example, apparently the Dallas Cowboys didn’t report any concussions, including the four that ended Troy Aikman’s career. The story also included the NFL’s ties to lobbyists that also work with the cigarette industry, another American industrial sector well known for obfuscating data and underselling the obvious.

For their part, the NFL has done what it almost always does – it’s come out on the attack. They have ardently defended their position – that they never claimed every case was reported, that there was nothing nefarious, and that the Times piece is basically a hatchet job. They also demanded an apology from the newspaper, which went over about as well as tofu at a steakhouse. The paper sticks by its account, and largely refuted all the NFL’s claims, which in many cases devolved into interpretation and intent, neither of which are easy to prove.

So what are we to take of this, the NY Times vs. the NFL? First, it’s probably not really worthwhile to break down this actual debate. Certainly journalists – and notably even the New York Times – have made critical reporting errors, be they factual or extreme bias. I don’t think that’s the case here. The NFL did omit over 100 cases – that’s true. They do share lobbyists with the cigarette industry, which may or may not be all that important, since politics and business often do make strange bedfellows. And the New York Times is likely relentless in its pursuits of facts around the NFL and concussions, a topic that’s been in the shadows for decades. So, in the case of he said, she said, it’s probably best simply to stay with the data.

And what does that data suggest? At the very least, the NFL still has a long way towards coming to terms with its own violent past and, one might suggest, its future. In trying to assure fans and critics that professional football can be safe, whatever that means, they probably first needed to come to terms with the reality that it wasn’t. I suppose in some regard they did, because they commissioned research in the first place. But even the slightest notion of impropriety – and this certainly is that – destroys whatever intent the league may or may not have had.  Does the NFL care about concussions and their long term effect? Who knows. And their fight over rhetoric with America’s most powerful newspaper does nothing to ease our uncertainty.

See, the flaws in the NFL’s research about concussions and football isn’t simply an oversight, as the NFL suggests. It’s yet another example of the hubris that has come to define their persona. I can’t say for certain what losing 100 concussion reports does to the examination of some nearly 900 others, since I’m not a neuroscientist or anything like it. But I do know that once a researcher – or a journalist – loses their word, they’ve got little else. The NFL could have kept some of that by simply admitting a limitation of their design, and trying to do better. Instead, they accused a journalist of being a hack for discovering the truth. Which make the NFL and its research less believable than ever.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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