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The NFL Got Rid of Dr. Elliot Pellman for All the Wrong Reasons

Getty Images
Getty Images

It isn’t controversial to say that Dr. Elliot Pellman, rheumatologist, former head of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, noted embellisher of credentials, naysayer of long-term concussion-related damage, newcomer to the field of brain study, and until Wednesday — when commissioner Roger Goodell informed teams that he has asked Pellman to retire — the brain expert of choice for the league, is a quack.

Pellman’s views on concussions are well established; as leader of the MTBI committee, he was responsible for shaping the league’s views on concussions, many of which it has just recently begun to acknowledge are problematic. Pellman’s more insidious comments include claims that no former NFL players had suffered brain damage and that it was safe to allow a concussed player to return to a game immediately following an injury, a practice Pellman routinely carried out during his stint as the Jets’ team doctor. In time, Pellman earned the ire of players — that is, the people Pellman was supposed to use his medical expertise to protect. These include former Jets offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who called recent revelations about Pellman’s work — or what one might less charitably call his wanton, serial lies — “disheartening.”

Throughout his tenure, Pellman was mad, bad, and dangerous. But that didn’t stop the NFL from coming to his defense at every opportunity: Official documents have referred to Pellman as the “NFL Medical Director,” according to a 2013 ESPN Outside the Lines report, and a league spokesman said the reporter inquiring about the doctor was “on a witch hunt.”

Now Pellman’s nearly 30 years in the NFL as a doctor and medical adviser are coming to a close, apparently at the direct behest of Goodell. Good riddance.

But don’t let this make you think that the NFL has seen the error in its ways, or that it has in any way renounced Pellman’s legacy. Why did the NFL finally get rid of Pellman? PR. That’s it. The league said as much in its announcement: Pellman was forced to retire in order to build trust — that is, rebuild trust — among players and fans. It’s optics. The NFL only showed Pellman the door because it thought it had something to gain by doing so.

Even the fact that news of Pellman’s departure was coupled with the announcement of a new chief medical officer role that will monitor team medicine and research — by both the NFL and, according to Goodell, “the broader independent scientific and medical communities” — should be taken warily. The NFL’s past gestures of concern about brain trauma and interest in engaging with independent scientists haven’t exactly gone very well: After agreeing to donate tens of millions of dollars to research led by the National Institute of Health, the league promptly backtracked. The NFL was accused of trying to influence the findings. It’s always done what it could to silence its critics.