Let’s forget for a minute that we’re talking about professional football. Let’s imagine that the workers who’d retired from some other industry — banking, for example, or the manufacturing of microwave popcorn — were suffering from some other life-altering condition: sticky fingers, for example, or lung disease, at a rate 19 times the rate found in the general population.
Let’s further posit that this information came to light as a result of a study commissioned by a consortium of employers in the industry, and that, having looked over the results of their own study, those employers tossed out those results, sending out a spokesman to say: "Lots of our former employees don’t suffer from sticky fingers or lung damage, and, besides, lots of people who were never employed in our industry do suffer from these conditions."
How would we respond?
Would we shrug off the results of the study and say, heck, everybody knows every profession has risks, and those people knew what they were getting into when they took jobs in banking or popcorn manufacturing?
Would we say that, the numbers and the results suggested by previous studies notwithstanding, any action without several more years of studies would be premature?
The National Football League is a very large business. The owners of the teams, the head coaches and the most fortunate and accomplished players make millions of dollars each season. CBS, FOX, ESPN and the other corporations involved in the presentation of the games have a multi-billion dollar stake in the product.
Fans in this country invest time, energy and money in pro football teams and in the industries they have spawned: memorabilia, products endorsed by players, fantasy football leagues and so on.
For all these reasons, the NFL has debunked the methodology and the results of their own study, which says, among other things, that retired players aged 30 to 49 are 19 times more likely to suffer from Alzhiemer’s disease or dementia than men of the same age in the general population.
League spokesman Greg Aiello has responded that “memory disorders affect many people who never played football” and pointed out that “thousands of retired players do not have memory problems.” The NFL has done nothing but distance itself from their own study and call for more research by Dr. Ira Casson, head of their committee on concussions, who has long denied any connection between pro football and dementia.
They should be ashamed of themselves, but shame has never been part of the NFL game plan.
Bill Littlefield comments on sports for WBUR and hosts Only A Game each Saturday at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
This program aired on October 1, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.