While Football Remakes Itself As Legal Dodgeball, the Question Remains: How Long Can a Silver Age Last?

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I’m out of town this week as news near and dear marinates. Past the 30-day mark since the felony arrest recommendation of the Arizona State University police, the county attorney is still weighing the charges against Greg Winslow for sexual abuse of a minor; when the story surfaced, it triggered the scandal of the cover-up of Winslow’s multi-front abuses at his most recent swimming coach post, the University of Utah. Elsewhere in that sport, there are other big developments about to break. I say so because there always are, and also because Tim Joyce and I are sitting for a few days on information about one.

Today Concussion Inc. returns to our roots. Now that the National Football League and its trickle-down entities in the organized sport are in limited hang-out mode — to borrow the Nixonian term — official authorities like Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chair of the league’s Head, Neck and Spine Injury Committee, are sustaining legalistic hernias in public. The litigation deluge means they have to disclose, but defensive litigation mode means they have to qualify, question, play to the inner skeptic in us all. And hope that no ones applies that skepticism to the messenger as well as the message.

Last week The New York Times reported on the fact sheet, covering epidemiological findings with regard to various neurological disorders in the ex-player population, which was mailed out by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The newspaper was leaked the nugget that an unnamed doctor-expert affiliated with the NFL had advocated removing chronic traumatic encephelopathy from the fact sheet, on the grounds that the phenomenon was “not fully understood.” Thus, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s made the cut; CTE did not.

Ellenbogen, plowing upfield to his right –always to his right! — and with his head up — always with his head up! — endorsed this approach. “We’ve got to be careful because CTE is a pathological diagnosis,” he said. “We know that exists. That’s been proven forever. What’s important about this study is, if I played sports and had concussions, what’s my chance of getting these?”

See “N.F.L. Doctor Says Disease Is Overstated,” March 27, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/28/sports/football/doctor-for-nfl-says-study-overstates-effects-of-cte.html?_r=3&.

Note the rhetorical stutter-step: CTE has “been proven forever.” But that’s just health mumbo-jumbo. Now we’re talking about the real stuff, risk management. What are the numbers and at what threshold are those numbers actionable?

The NFL, enabled by the people my friend Matt Chaney calls “yaks,” would like us all to forget, thanks to collective spiritual memory disorder, how recently and grudgingly it has conceded the existence of “proven forever” CTE. The question of research focus “was surely discussed by every football official with a clue by 1986, whether of league, union or NCAA, then inexplicably dropped from a Johns Hopkins University study that initially planned a control group of college football players,” says Chaney, author of the underappreciated 2009 book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football.

And nearly two years ago Chaney was still hammering at the carefully circumscribed parameters of epidemiological studies of footballers. See http://blog.4wallspublishing.com/2011/06/23/research-for-nfl-brain-trauma-sputters-along.aspx.

Soon the banks for study of the effects of traumatic brain injury-heavy occupations will have bigger surpluses than our national petroleum reserves, and Harvard University will be $10 million into its $100-million fleece of the National Football League Players Association to tell us what we already know, what has “been proven forever,” just not yet in Harvardese.

Football’s golden age is over. Yaks like Ellenbogen remind us that golden ages end at the height of their popularity, revenue, television ratings, national obsession, and when smartly managed, they don’t plummet. Those numbers can hold, desperately, conterintuitively, self-deceivingly, for quite a while. Silver ages have long shelf lives.

Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick