Editorial: NFL should stop spinning and confront link between head hits and dementia

If you join tens of millions of other Americans today by turning on a football game, think for a moment about Mike Webster, the tough-guy center who anchored the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s.

Think of Iron Mike especially if you’re the parents of kids who aspire to emulate their heroes.

Webster is one focus of “League of Denial,” a PBS-Frontline documentary that aired last week about head injury and dementia among retired football players. Webster died in 2002, broken at age 50 in Pittsburgh.

Pathologist Bennet I. Omalu, then working in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office, discovered why Webster in his final days could no longer remember his way to the grocery store and slept in his car: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head.

Too often, the National Football League has failed to acknowledge the connection between head trauma suffered by some gladiators who play the game that American so loves, and dementia later in their lives.

Even after the NFL paid $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by former NFL players, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last month told an interviewer: “There was no recognition that anything was caused by football.”

The league trumpets $30 million it has given to the National Institutes of Health to study the issue. It has changed rules to reduce concussions. But collision is part of the sport. Only so much can be done. We certainly don’t urge an end to football.

Professional football players are adults who are well paid and are represented by lawyers, agents and a union. They know the risks. Kids are another story.

Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston University School of Medicine neurosurgeon and an NFL consultant, has concluded that children under age 14 should not play tackle football. Parents should take note. A child’s brain is a fragile thing.

Frontline based its documentary on reporting by brothers Steve Fainaru, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Iraq coverage while working for The Washington Post, and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who helped break the BALCO steroid scandal. Their book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” was published last week.

The NFL has attacked scientists, including Omalu, who found evidence linking football to dementia. Omalu left Pittsburgh, moved to Lodi, where he worked as a medical examiner, and is an associate clinical professor at UC Davis School of Medicine.

“I wish I never met Mike Webster,” Omalu says on the documentary. “You can’t go against the NFL. They will squash you.”

In an indication of the power of the NFL, ESPN pulled its logo from the documentary in August, even though the Fainaru brothers work for ESPN. The New York Times reported that ESPN was responding to NFL pressure. ESPN denied it.

Ever attuned to the sport’s image, football executives undertook damage control last week. The national headquarters of Pop Warner football announced it had joined with other youth sports organizations to “prevent and manage concussions among young athletes.”

Pop Warner says the NFL is a partner in the effort, and the Sports Concussion Institute at UCLA’s School of Medicine will be involved. It would have been nicely spun, if only executives who control the sport had made the gesture years earlier.

The NFL, a master at public relations, has tried to spin its way out of the problem. The league ought to devote at least as much energy to solving the problem of repetitive head trauma as it does trying to persuade its fans that there is no story here.