The NFL & Research Ethics

It’s not every day that research ethics makes it way to the front pages of the newspapers. Usually those issues are addressed in other, less prominent venues. But last week’s New York Times article by Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich, and Jacqueline Williams, “N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to the Tobacco Industry,” continued the controversial concussion discussion by reporting that the multi-billion dollar league omitted “more than 100 diagnosed concussions . . . including some severe injuries to stars like quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman.” One critic formerly associated with the league is quoted as saying: “You’re not doing science here; you are putting forth some idea that you already have.” The N.F.L. concussion issue was brought to public attention through PBS’ Frontline  and more recently through the movie, Concussion.

The Times article notes the disagreement between what the league says now (“clubs were not required to submit their data and not every club did”) and what the league said at the time of its earlier studies: “It was understood that any player with a recognized symptom of head injury, no matter how minor, should be included in the study.” It calls into question what the league knew, when it knew it, and how that impacted the well-being of its players. Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times also published “The N.F.L.’s Tragic C.T.E. Roll Call,” a list of the some of the most notable cases of deceased players who were found to have C.T. E.

As a lifelong N.F.L. fan, I hope that league would do its part to ensure the safety of its players, whether symptoms occur during or after their playing days. As someone interested in bioethics in general, I hope that researchers would continue to use the best practices available to ensure that their data collection and results are unbiased. This is our responsibility to future generations.

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