Josh Rosenau's picture

The NFL Borrows the Denialist Playbook

There was quite the sense of déjà vu in watching Thursday night's episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

 

 

Journalist Mark Fainaru-Wada described what he and his brother found as they investigated the epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among football players. The disease is a result of brain damage caused by constant concussions on the field and it causes dramatic problems for the players for years after they've left the game. He summarized their book, League of Denial:

What struck us was the profound level of that denial. You're talking about two decades of denial. On the one hand they're attacking independent scientists, these scientists who think they're actually going to help the NFL, they're going to tell them "look, you've got this problem," that brain damage can be caused by playing in the NFL. And the NFL, instead of embracing those guys, is basically mocking them and attacking them or trying to deny their very existence in some ways. And then they create their own research arm and that research arm puts out paper after paper in a journal co-opted by the league itself. And the papers say NFL players are fine, concussions are not a big issue, we don't have a problem with this, and you guys are going to be cool.

To students of science denial, this is a familiar story. Fainaru-Wada's comments could just as easily come from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt or Robert Proctor's Golden Holocaust. Many of these techniques were pioneered by the tobacco industry, others were developed by creationists. It's shocking to see just how quickly an industry, when its bottom line is threatened because it is damaging people's lives, can pull down the denialist playbook and put these now-standard strategies in motion.