EDITOR’S NOTE: An alert reader of the item below points out that I goofed in identifying Elliot Pellman as the original “Dr. No.” It was Dr. Ira Casson who insisted in a Congressional hearing that this brain injury stuff was hype. Sorry, readers. But as Jason Robards said in All the President’s Men, “We stand by our story.”
Your humble blogger
In the community of dissident retired National Football League players, Dr. Elliot Pellman has gone down in infamy as “Dr. No.” He is the former New York Jets team physician who denied to everyone, even Congress, the link between football head-banging and skull-swiveling, and the phenomenon now clearly identified by researchers as CTE — chronic traumatic encephelopathy. One of the best pieces of The New York Times‘s often exemplary reporting on traumatic brain injury (this one in 2005 by Duff Wilson, pre-Alan Schwarz) was a story detailing that Pellman specialized in rheumatology and boasted credentials from a medical school in Mexico. For its American gladiators, you see, the NFL commissions only the best and the brightest.
Moving from the ridiculous to the would-be sublime, I nominate a successor to the Pellman Endowed Chair in Industry-Induced Denial: none other than Kevin Guskiewicz — chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina, and recipient last year of a MacArthur Foundation “genius fellowship.”
It is one of the agonies of this story — which I have been following for several years, not nearly as long as some others — that many so-called experts are really just politicians in white lab coats. Not satisfied with faculty tenure, intra-disciplinary renown, and other perks of minor celebrity, they go for powerbroker status. In the process, they sell themselves on the idea that fame and access — their particular coin of the realm — are not only good for others as well, but also public-spirited even in excess.
Here and there, I’ve criticized Boston’s Sports Legacy Institute and the Boston University Center on CTE for succumbing to these temptations. But nearly three years after unwisely accepting a $1 million NFL grant, the Boston folks are showing signs of finding their sea legs in this crucial public health fight. This may be because the NFL has moved on to bigger game — including subsidies of the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control, and co-opting female youth sports bloggers into promoting the oxymoron of “safe football” — but I don’t care about what might motivate them. What I do care about is that Dr. Ann McKee (who was always uniquely outspoken) is blasting the equivocations of the recent international “concussion summit” in Zurich. Chris Nowinski is ripping the NFL’s latest pawn of a concussion committee co-chair, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen. And Dr. Robert Cantu is no longer speaking with forked tongue about the need to eliminate tackle football for kids under 14.
But then there’s Guskiewicz.
Guskiewicz told Joe Nocera of The Times, “My 16-year-old and my 12-year-old played football this year. They had a great experience.” He added that studies like those of the Boston group “clearly show that CTE exists in players without a history of concussions, but they haven’t completely connected the dots.”
Imagine the intellectual timidity of having a forum like The Times and using it to emphasize that they haven’t completely connected the dots. Queue up the tobacco company executives!
Guskiewicz, being of sound mind, also told ESPN: “The vast majority of the neuroscience community does not believe that research has yet identified a causal relationship linking repetitive head trauma in football and CTE; I include myself in that.”
This is all part of what Congresswoman Linda Sánchez, in House Judiciary Committee hearings in 2009, called the “slow walk” of the football industry and its hangers-on regarding the discretionary assessment of injured pinkies … oh, excuse me, the progressively damaged brain tissue of a significant slice of our male children.
Parents who wait for the experts’ “consensus” to coalesce in peer-reviewed, theoretically perfected, non-conflicted research are playing what Chris Nowinski has aptly termed “a gambler’s game” with their sons’ mental health. America’s parents, instead, need to be voting with their instincts — and their feet.
And with no thanks to Kevin “Dr. No” Guskiewicz.