[originally published February 7 at Beyond Chron, http://www.beyondchron.org/articles/Helmet_to_Helmet_FTC_s_Investigation_Could_Be_the_Super_Bowl_for_Corrupt_NFL_Doctors_and_the_National_Concussion_Crisis_8877.html]
by Irvin Muchnick
With the Super Bowl out of the way, the National Football League is fraught with the unfinished business of a new collective bargaining agreement between owners and players. Far less attention has been given to a threat that may be even bigger: the Federal Trade Commission’s announced probe of the exaggerated safety claims of football helmet manufacturers.
All too often, government investigations of industry culminate in bland consent decrees whereby the corporations alleged to have offended standards promise to abandon particular claims without admitting they did anything wrong. If that becomes the end result of the FTC examination of Riddell, the official helmet supplier for the NFL, and of Riddell’s chief competitor Schutt Sports, then an important opportunity will have been missed to shine light on what is now the 17-year-old story of the NFL’s controversial management of the concussion issue.
There’s plenty to suggest that the FTC, at the urging of Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, intends to go beyond the advertising and YouTube promo videos of Riddell and Schutt, and follow the story to its source: the process and substance of the clinical research over the last two decades that has slowed and misled the public in understanding the causes and magnitude of systematic brain trauma in football. If the feds pursue that trail, they will unravel the enmeshment of corrupt NFL doctors with a prominent medical institution and a prominent journal that have skewed studies and publications in ways favorable to a league facing potentially cataclysmic legal exposure.
Udall’s January 4 letter to the FTC opened a can of worms that can’t be resealed where it noted that Riddell cites research showing that its Revolution helmet – heavily marketed all the way down to youth leagues through the company’s NFL connection – is based on a 2006 article in the journal Neurosurgery.
The article had five co-authors. One was Thad Ide, Riddell’s chief engineer. Three others were University of Pittsburgh Medical Center colleagues Mark Lovell, Micky Collins, and Joseph Maroon. Lovell is the chairman and Collins the chief clinical officer for the for-profit Pittsburgh company imPACT Applications, Inc., which markets concussion-management software to the NFL and many other leagues and teams in all sports.
Dr. Maroon is the third imPACT owner associated with the Riddell study, as well as numerous other studies touted in Neurosurgery, the journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. He is listed as imPACT’s chief medical officer. Maroon also is the long-time neurosurgeon for the Steelers and a member, since its creation in 1994 by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, of the NFL’s policy committee on traumatic brain injuries.
According to the The New York Times, Maroon now discredits Riddell’s advertising claim with a claim of his own – that company promos stretched the Neurosurgery research data for lay consumers. But Maroon’s semantic nuance is not supported by a plain reading of the article, whose own abstract states: “Wearing the Revolution helmet was associated with approximately a 31% decreased relative risk and 2.3% decreased absolute risk for sustaining a concussion in this cohort study.”
Nor does Maroon’s insistence that Riddell distorted his work address why neither he nor the NFL raised a peep during at least two years of promotion of the Revolution helmet using the 31 percent figure.
So there is strong justification for a sophisticated government examination of the role of the league and its doctors in the “evolution of the Revolution.” Above all, the national public health crisis of sports concussions – estimated to total four million annually, not including the possibility that tens of millions more “sub-concussive” head blows contribute to youth mental deterioration – demands a new round of Congressional hearings on how the NFL has framed, manipulated, and stalled. Such an initiative will not resume at the House Judiciary Committee, which held hearings in 2009, since the Democrats no longer hold a majority there. But Udall could take up at the cause at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Another possibility is Connecticut’s new senator, Richard Blumenthal, who has been appointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Blumenthal won a hard-fought election last November against Republican nominee Linda McMahon, who “self-funded” her campaign with $50 million of wealth generated by the billion-dollar publicly traded corporation World Wrestling Entertainment, which she had co-founded with her husband Vince.
Maroon himself counts a cushy consultancy for the McMahons among his many entrepreneurial hats: WWE named Maroon its “medical director” and installed his imPACT system there following the 2007 double murder/suicide of star wrestler Chris Benoit. Buttressed by his NFL experience, Maroon dutifully enabled or directly uttered dubious WWE representations on everything from its tolerance for “chair shots” to the head as part of its choreographed entertainment, to its access to the Benoit brain study by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pioneer of “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” research, to whether WWE performers use steroids.
Federal investigators who look into the full range of work of the doctor who conveniently cried foul at Riddell’s exploitation of his research will find that he is also an endorser of unregulated supplements and a huckster for the demographically ripe field of anti-aging “wellness.”
The NFL offseason began with Aaron Rodgers’ final kneeldown at Cowboys Stadium. Our elected leaders shouldn’t waste a day following the FTC’s Riddell investigation wherever it leads.
For continuing developments, follow my blog at http://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com.
Irvin Muchnick is author of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.