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The NFL’s Reflex on a Player Health Scandal Is Once Again to Deny Everything

Facing allegations of massive wrongdoing by trainers and team doctors, the league is showing its true colors

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

A lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 1,800 former NFL players has provided a window into how teams’ medical and training staffs operate, revealing an arena in which powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories were doled out with little care for federal drug regulations, as detailed in a Thursday report in The Washington Post. The rate of drug distribution was so high, the Post reports, that the numbers “could average out to about six to seven pain pills or injections a week per player over the course of a typical NFL season,” though it’s unlikely they were evenly distributed.

The suit suggests the below-board practices were endemic across the league: The filing obtained by the Post, which was compiled during the discovery process conducted by the players’ attorneys, claims that every single team doctor deposed had confessed to breaking at least one federal drug law or regulation. The filing also presents evidence that team doctors and trainers systematically flouted rules, thereby endangering the players under their care.

Here’s how the NFL responded: It denied everything. The allegations, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Post, “are meritless and the league and its clubs will continue to vigorously defend these claims.” So here we go again: As always, when it comes to players’ health, the NFL is circling the wagons and reverting to what it does best — defending the bottom line.

The NFL commissioned a study on head injuries from 1996 to 2001, but the study omitted more than 100 diagnoses of concussions. (The reporting of which occasioned a 2,500-word rebuttal from the league.) When the pathologist Bennet Omalu first published a paper back in 2005 about the connection between concussions in the NFL and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the league demanded a retraction. It wasn’t until 2016, as evidence of the causes and horrifying effects of C.T.E. piled up and the public outcry reached a fever pitch, that an NFL official admitted — meekly — that concussions incurred playing football might be capable of causing long-term damage. Or there’s the case of Elliot Pellman, the rheumatologist put in charge of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, who was widely — and rightly — criticized as an unqualified quack, only to be vigorously defended by the league. It wasn’t until 2007 that he resigned, and it took nearly a decade more for him to finally be severed from the league — with a fond farewell this past July from no less than commissioner Roger Goodell, who thanked the doctor “for his dedicated service to the game and for his many contributions to the NFL and our clubs.”

If following the NFL can sometimes feel like watching a hurricane of scandals — a Hydra with heads made of damage and hurt and controversy — consider that perhaps the problem is more foundational than the league would have us believe. That maybe, among all the issues plaguing a game that just can’t find a way to be safe — on Friday, 28-year-old tight end Jordan Cameron became the latest player to retire early out of concern for his own health — the constant is this: The people in charge of the NFL don’t care about player safety, and can’t even be bothered to pretend otherwise.

In the case of this week’s revelations, some degree of standoffishness might be expected, given that the filing is part of an ongoing lawsuit. But how does the league look at the reports of gross negligence in locker rooms — at problems so systemic that the Cincinnati Bengals head trainer, Paul Sparling, who still holds that role today, boasted in a 2009 email that he was “pretty good at keeping [investigators] off the trail!” — and forcefully defend the status quo? How can the NFL claim to take allegations concerning player welfare seriously and not conduct a thorough investigation of its own? How can it spend a decade denying that the brains of its employees are being pulverized and then continue to wave off damning disclosures about player health as “simply wrong,” as McCarthy did? How little does the league care if it won’t even give these problems lip service? Why does keeping the players on the field, regardless of the long-term consequences, always take precedence over everything else?

To watch professional football in 2017 is to know that there are real, complicated, and desperately urgent problems throughout the league. It’s also an exercise in hoping that the powers that be are working somehow toward solving them. But the NFL’s behavior — its relentless tendency to turn to those who surface the issues, be they scientists or lawyers or the players themselves, and immediately tell them to screw off — makes believing that it will do the right thing impossible.