Kevin Turner and the NFL’s Evolving Stance of Doubt – posted 4/3/2016
As someone who follows news about pro football, I would have to acknowledge how often these days football news is punctuated by stories about the deaths of former players. Usually they die young. The most recent example is Kevin Turner.
Turner, who died at age 46, had an 8 year NFL career. He had been a blocking fullback for the Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles back in the 1990’s. He had played college ball at Alabama. Turner was an extremely talented offensive player who spent much of his career plowing into linebackers and defensive linemen which was often not a glory role.
More recently, Turner was one of the lead plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit filed by the players against the NFL. He was widely respected and popular in the NFL player community. After he died, I saw innumerable tweets from former NFL players remembering and honoring him.
In 2010, Turner received the diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had suffered more concussions than he could count. As a player he had been prone to “stingers”, which are injuries to the neck and spinal cord. Turner was certain football contributed to his medical condition. He was quoted in 2011:
“Football had something to do with it. I don’t know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys.”
Turner used to tell a story about a Packers-Eagles game in which he played in 1997. He took a brutal hit on the opening kickoff where he saw stars. After that, he did not miss a play. Midway through the second quarter, he found himself on the sideline. He turned to his teammate Bobby Hoying and he said:
“Bobby, I know we’re playing the Packers. Are we in Philadelphia or Green Bay?”
Hoying then called the team doctors. The doctors held Turner out for two series. He played the whole second half as well as the rest of the season. That was the norm back then.
By 2013, Turner’s ALS had progressed. He had great difficulty using his hands. He described the progression this way:
“There’s so many things you can’t do. I’ll list the things you can. I can still walk around. I can’t carry anything. It takes away all of your independence. I can’t bathe myself. I can’t brush my own teeth. I can’t eat. I can drink but I can’t bring it to my mouth. I can’t dress myself. I can’t tie my shoes. If I can’t do it with my feet, I can’t do it.”
In his last years, Turner selflessly advocated for former players and he fought for more research on the connection between repetitive brain trauma, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and ALS. Turner pledged his own brain for research.
A key scientist in this research is Dr. Ann McKee from Boston University and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. She has studied the brains of 94 deceased NFL players. 90 had CTE. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. The Concussion Legacy Foundation has put out the best definition of CTE that I have seen.
“CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head…This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes..can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia.”
Shockingly, after years of denial, the NFL may now be signaling a new stance. In testimony he just gave before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Congress, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller, forthrightly stated that there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE. Miller went on to recognize that Dr. Ann McKee and her colleagues at BU had found the disease in many players who died.
It is hard to overstate what a departure Miller’s testimony represents from previous NFL positions. For many years the NFL argued that research had not established any causal link between repetitive head trauma in football and CTE. It is hard to square Miller’s testimony with recent statements from Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell, while acknowledging Miller, still seems to be downplaying the risks of playing football. Here is Goodell this February:
“From my standpoint, I played football for nine years through high school and I wouldn’t give up a single day of that. If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.”
The NFL’s seeming new position does not appear to be reflected in recent statements by well-known owners of NFL teams. Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, said he is not convinced that medical and scientific research have established a link between football and brain disease. Jones claims a lack of data and research.
Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts owner, compared the dangers of playing football to the risks associated with taking aspirin. Irsay was quoted:
“I believe this: that the game has always been a risk. Look at it. You take an aspirin, I take an aspirin, it might give you extreme side effects of illness and your body…may reject it, where I would be fine. So there is so much we don’t know.”
On March 28, speaking to the media at the NFL owners’ annual meeting, Irsay went on to say, “Obviously, we are not going to go to a situation where we put players in almost balloon-like equipment, where it becomes a pillow fight, so to speak.”
Around the same time on March 24, the New York Times published an important story that showed the NFL’s concussion research was far more flawed than had been previously known. The Times showed that research done from 1996 through 2001 omitted more than 100 diagnosed concussions and calculated the rates of concussions using incomplete data. The NFL made concussions appear less frequent than they actually were.
The Times also found out that along with teams failing to report all of their players’ concussions, some teams completely failed to report any concussions. The Times’ article cites the Dallas Cowboys as an example. It also goes on to cite overlapping and intersecting interests between the NFL and tobacco companies. The two businesses shared lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants.
Given the contradictory statements from the NFL and its owners, it is hard to know if they have, in fact, evolved. For years the NFL used their resources to push the message that concussions were a non-issue. They cherry picked data, elevated flawed research and attacked scientists opposed to their party line. At this point, it is hard to believe any change of heart is sincere.
I believe the NFL is following a path described by authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their book, Merchants of Doubt. The NFL has been merchandising doubt to mislead the public about the connection between brain injuries and football. It is the same strategy followed by the tobacco companies who for years denied the connection between smoking and lung cancer. As one tobacco executive wrote, “Doubt is our product.”
The NFL can always in a cagey way say it is on the side of science and more research. They can say the science is in its infancy but the science is way more settled than they are acknowledging. Promoting an alleged controversy and doubt-mongering give space for the NFL to continue with minimal disruption and cost. It is actually a formula for inaction and delay.
In honor of Kevin Turner and the other players who have died prematurely, we need to be keeping it real with intellectual honesty. I am not arguing for any ban on football because players can make their own choices about whether they want to play but they should know: football can rob you of critical life capabilities while short-circuiting your life. It is a Faustian bargain.