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Like Shady Industries Before It, the NFL is in Big Trouble

“We have one essential job—which can be simply said: Stop public panic … There is only one problem—confidence, and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it.”

Go on, take a guess. Was this quote from Big Tobacco, a climate-change denier, or the NFL?

The above excerpt was actually taken from the tobacco industry’s leading PR firm, Hills & Knowlton, in 1953. In the face of concrete evidence that linked smoking cigarettes to lung cancer, Philip Morris and other cigarette companies orchestrated a marketing campaign that smeared credible science in order to conceal the dangers of America’s favorite addiction.

As countless indisputable findings emerged that linked cigarettes to health risks, the industry and its lobbyists struggled to maintain the image of the classic tobacco brand. Finally, by the 1990s, a legal blitzkrieg demanding billions of dollars in damages threatened to bankrupt Philip Morris and its competitors, exposing the cover-ups and teen-targeted marketing schemes that plagued the industry.

It took over three decades, but science prevailed over corporate interests. For a moment, at least.

It wasn’t long before a nonsensical, climate-change denialist crusade gained traction and peaked around the turn of the century. Phony scientists, cozy in the pockets of fossil fuel giants, published studies downplaying global warming and labeling the scientific consensus as alarmist. Worried about government regulation in response to the environmental movement, conservative think tanks hopped onboard the train of skeptics. So did the media.

Marc Morano, climate denialist talking head and Rush Limbaugh protege, made 30 TV appearances between 2009-2014, once even claiming that climate scientists “deserve to be publicly flogged.” A pattern of granting equal coverage to illegitimate claims bred biased reporting. Today, despite increasing support for an international agreement regulating greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. remains one of the least concerned nations regarding global climate change.

What does this all have to do with football?

Well, it appears as if the corporate attack on science has found a new battleground on the gridiron.

New data gathered by the New York Times has revealed that the NFL skewed concussion data to whitewash the severity of the problem, omitting over 100 diagnosed concussions between 1996 and 2001. To make matters worse, the league shared lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists with the grandfather of fake science: Big Tobacco.

These findings support Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s assertions in League of Denial, that the NFL repeatedly discredited independent concussion studies in favor of its own distorted data.

The news should hit close to home for Patriots fans who witnessed the Deflategate scandal—a controversy regarding the air pressure of footballs during the 2015 AFC Championship game against the Colts—and the ensuing Wells Report that accused Tom Brady & Co. of cheating.

But a closer look at the investigation raises questions about its validity. Ted Wells, the attorney tasked with leading the “independent” evaluation, has a history of defending high-profile clients and major corporations in messy scandals, including tobacco giant Philip Morris. For research, he hired Exponent, Inc., a consulting firm accused of generating results beneficial for its clients. In 1989, it defended Exxon in the Valdez oil disaster.

More recently, the company argued that unloading oil waste in the Ecuadorian rain forest does not increase cancer rates. Exponent’s largest shareholder was also a member of the board of Chevron Corp., which commissioned the study.

Perhaps worst of all, the firm helped perpetuate the myth that secondhand smoke does not cause cancer.

As environmental consultant Cindy Sage told the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “The first thing you know is that when Exponent is brought in to help a company, that company is in big trouble.”

The NFL is in big trouble. For decades, the league has waged a war on science, with an aim of profiting from misleading the public. Not only has the ploy been a disservice to fans, but it has purposefully slowed progress in the field of concussion research by disguising the NFL’s phony findings with a cloud of legitimacy.

But while Big Tobacco’s marketing efforts and Big Oil’s battles against climate change felt their appropriate blowback, the multi-billion dollar industry that is the NFL has remained rich as ever, despite the controversy. What’s worse, public opinion of the league doesn’t seem to be taking a big hit.

I don’t sense a wave of anger toward the NFL that is deserved during a scandal of this magnitude. I don’t think the public realizes how much they’ve been duped, and how many lives are at risk because of it. And I believe that the pattern of businesses attempting to discredit science for monetary gain—and succeeding—is one of the saddest traditions in this country.

Granted, there’s only so much we can do. Maybe recent events will open the door for more lawsuits against the league. I wish boycotting Goodell & Co. was as tangible as spurning cigarettes or choosing more eco-friendly alternatives, but I’m not sure that changing the channel from NFL RedZone on Sundays solves the problem (plus, it may very well be part of my future job description to regularly watch football). Most of the troubles lie within the league’s leadership, not the sport itself.

Are we accessories to the crime by supporting a corrupt industry with our fandom?

I don’t know. But if history has shown anything, it’s that more than a legal slap on the wrist is needed to reform an organization like the NFL. It has taken decades of activism and a collective movement to make any dent in the profits of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries. The same may be needed to effect change in the most dangerous sport in America.

When it comes to concussions in the NFL, the league’s policy has been, “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” It’s time for America’s favorite sport to change its approach to prioritize player safety and save lives. Instead of, as Big Oil and Big Tobacco would say, establishing confidence in its industry, the NFL needs to establish something far more important: the truth.

Featured Image by Abby Paulson / Heights Editor

April 3, 2016