NFL, New York Times spar over data in concussion study, Big Tobacco ties

Early Thursday morning, The New York Times published a report about the NFL, concussions, and Big Tobacco. In their story, The Times reported that the NFL's previous research into concussions was incomplete and flawed, and that the NFL has had ties to Big Tobacco.

It didn't take the NFL long to issue their lengthy response to the article, which the league claims has "no basis in fact." The NFL's statement is long, so instead of inserting the entire 1,043-word statement below, let's slice it up into chunks.

The league's statement begins with an overall look at the story.

Today's New York Times story on the National Football League is contradicted by clear facts that refute both the thesis of the story and each of its allegations. As the Times itself states: "The Times has found no direct evidence that the league took its strategy from Big Tobacco." Despite that concession, the Times published pages of innuendo and speculation for a headline with no basis in fact.

The studies that are the focus of the Times' story used data collected between 1996-2001. They were necessarily preliminary and acknowledged that much more research was needed. Since that time, the NFL has been on the forefront of promoting and funding independent research on these complex issues. Further, the data from the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee studies have not been used in any way by the current Head, Neck and Spine Committee in its research on player health and safety. All of the current policies relating to player medical care and the treatment of concussions have been carefully developed in conjunction with independent experts on our medical committees, the NFLPA, and leading bodies such as the CDC.

The NFL went on to say that it "provided The Times with more than 50 pages of information demonstrating the facts," which the newspaper allegedly "ignored," according to the NFL. The league then listed out what it considers to be the facts. 

The NFL's six disputes are listed below. To be clear, the six mini-headlines that have been written above each blockquote expresses the NFL's view and its characterization -- not mine -- of The Times' article. It's an important distinction given The Times ended up disputing how the NFL interpreted its article, but we'll get to that later. 

First, here are the six specific complaints the NFL had with the article:

1. The NFL disputes The Times' characterization of the NFL's faulty research into concussions.

The Times claims that the concussion studies funded in part by NFL Charities purposely relied on faulty and incomplete concussion data. In fact, the MTBI studies published by the MTBI Committee are clear that the data set had limitations. Moreover, they expressly state that they were based on a data set that drew from two separate sources -- the NFL injury surveillance system that collected simple data regarding concussions, and a set of forms that the teams were asked to provide to the League that provided additional factual detail about each such concussion. The studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported or that occurred. Moreover, the fact that not all concussions were reported is consistent with the fact that reporting was strongly encouraged by the League but not mandated, as documents provided to the Times showed. 

2. The NFL says it never relied on legal advice from the Tobacco Institute. Of note, Lorillard is a cigarette company that a co-owner of the Giants, Preston R. Tisch, partly owned.

The story claims that the League relied on legal advice from Lorillard and the Tobacco Institute. In fact, neither then-NFL Commissioner, Mr. Tagliabue, the League nor its counsel ever solicited, reviewed, or relied on any advice from anyone at Lorillard or the Tobacco Institute regarding health issues. 

3. The NFL disputes the nature of the relationship between league official Joe Browne and Sam Chilcote. In the story, The Times wrote that Browne "sought lobbying advice" from Chilcote, who served as a representative of the Tobacco Institute.

The Times implies that there was a nefarious relationship between Joe Browne and Sam Chilcote. In fact, Joe Browne (then NFL SVP of Communications) built a personal relationship with Sam Chilcote while Mr. Chilcote was at the Distilled Spirits Council in the 1970s. The NFL and the Distilled Spirits Council jointly produced Public Service Announcements, and Mr. Browne and Mr. Chilcote were the point people for their respective organizations. Details of that work can be found on the DISCUS website. Mr. Browne and Mr. Chilcote remained friendly after Mr. Chilcote left DISCUS for the Tobacco Institute in 1981. Mr. Browne contacted Mr. Chilcote in 1982 for some advice as someone he knew in Washington, DC about a subject completely unrelated to tobacco, concussions, or any player-related or medical issue. We have seen no evidence -- from the Times or otherwise -- that demonstrated their relationship had anything to do with tobacco or NFL health and safety.  

4. The NFL says the league didn't hire Dorothy C. Mitchell due to her experience with tobacco litigation.

The Times insinuates that the NFL hired Dorothy Mitchell, an associate at the law firm Covington & Burling, because of her experience in tobacco litigation. Ms. Mitchell, who had represented the NFL in employment litigation, sought an in-house job with the NFL and was hired as a labor lawyer to handle Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) related grievances. She later served as a legal liaison with the MTBI Committee, and her role in that capacity was to prepare grant documents, provide intellectual property advice, ensure the privacy of player information, and communicate with the players' union. Her experience as a young lawyer working on a tobacco case (among many other cases) was entirely unknown to the NFL personnel who hired and supervised her, as well as to members of the MTBI Committee, until they learned of this proposed story. 

5. The NFL disputes that its ties to the Stanford Research Institute reveal a connection to the Tobacco Institute.

The Times asserts a connection between the League and the Tobacco Institute because both hired the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). SRI's blue chip client list includes multiple U.S. government agencies, such as the Army Research Lab, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, the Department of Education (including a study highlighted in the New York Times in 2009), the Department of Health & Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department, as well as prominent associations and foundations including the Alzheimer's Association, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. In fact, one of the research studies the Times alludes to was jointly commissioned by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. There is no evidence that SRI engaged in misleading or inappropriate research. 

6. The NFL claims it never shared lobbyists with the Tobacco Institute. 

And finally, the story says that the NFL shared lobbyists with the Tobacco Institute. In fact, the League has never participated -- either through its counsel of over 50 years, Covington & Burling, or otherwise -- in any joint lobbying efforts with the Tobacco Institute. 

The NFL ended its statement with two closing paragraphs, in which it argues that The Times' "sensationalized story" is refuted by the NFL's "ongoing commitment on the issue of player health and safety." You can read the NFL's entire statement here.  

Shortly after the NFL released its statement, The Times responded to the NFL's response via Twitter. Below, I've transcribed what The Times wrote in a series of Tweets:

  • "The Times claims that the concussion studies ... purposely relied on faulty ..." Our article did not claim that. 
  • "Studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported ..." Studies and peer review statements did claim that.
  • "Story claims the league relied on legal advice from Lorillard and Tobacco Institute." Our article did not claim that.
  • "League has never participated in any joint lobbying efforts with Tobacco Institute." Our article did not claim that.
  • NFL says participation in study wasn't mandated. At least one of the papers said it was, in fact, mandated.
  • Times insinuates NFL hired Mitchell ... because of experience in tobacco litigation." Article did not say how or why she was hired.
  • NFL studies never mentioned that some teams didn't participate. Yet their numbers were included, producing lower concussion rates.

Just as I was about to file this article, the NFL released another statement titled "More To The Story." It largely focuses on the same issues the league presented in its initial statement, but it goes into even more detail.

And yes, it is lengthy.

The NFL quickly responded to The New York Times' story. (USATSI)

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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