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How much money is enough to cover a public health scandal? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has committed $100 million to research into concussions, brain injury, and CTE. But some commentators say it’s more about public opinion than health and safety.
The National Football League (NFL) has been in hot water over brain injury since Will Smith’s Concussion hit the big screens at the beginning of 2016. The movie told the story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, and his discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopath (CTE). It raised the question of whether the NFL was covering up a major public health problem.
With the pressure on, Commissioner Roger Goodell issued an open letter on September 14, 2016, which committed the NFL to additional research to “make the game safer—for our professional athletes down to young athletes first learning how to play.”
The letter touted changes already made by the league to protect players’ safety:
The initiative, called Play Smart. Play Safe, pledges an additional $100 million “in support of independent medical research and engineering advancements.”
The NFL also announced the establishment of an “independent scientific advisory board” made of up to 7 doctors, scientists, and clinicians. Their job will be:
“[T]o engage in a clear process to identify and support the most compelling proposals for scientific research into concussions, head injuries and their long-term effects.”
Doctors seem to approve of the initiative. Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine and the medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told the New York Times:
“The more money that’s out there, that’s good. . . . The reality is, the words are all good, but it’s the deeds that count.”
But Steve Almond from Salon magazine thinks Play Smart. Play Safe is a political stunt. He notes the initiative’s funding is tiny compared to the recent settlement between the NFL and 5,000 former players. It also is a drop in the bucket of the $13 billion gross annual profits the league enjoys. Almond writes:
“More to the point: There is no pile of money big enough to stop NFL players from winding up with brain damage. Because no pile of money can undo the basic physics and physiology of the game.”
To properly protect players, the NFL would have to fundamentally change the game to make it less violent (“two-hand touch, anyone?” Almond suggests). But that would affect fans’ enjoyment of the game, and so it is off the table.
Whether the NFL’s brain injury initiatives will lead to lasting change in professional football remains to be seen. But if the research makes its way to the public, it could make for a safer game for the 1,000s of kids and teens who play football every season.