NFL’s War Against Science and Reason


Perhaps it’s because I just watched the movie, “Concussion,” which tells the story of the National Football League’s haughty denial of the science proving football-related brain damage – and the NFL’s abuse of the truth-tellers – but I still can’t understand why so many people side with Commissioner Roger Goodell in the absurd “Deflategate” case against Tom Brady.

Surely, the NFL’s four-game suspension of the New England Patriots quarterback on the charge of tampering with the air pressure of footballs is not as serious as the NFL covering up the dangers from concussions (reminiscent of how the cigarette industry long denied links between smoking and cancer), but the Brady case is a microcosm of how power works and how checks and balances, including the major news media, fail.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

What seems to have happened behind the scenes of Deflategate is that once the controversy got started with a leak from the NFL, followed by intense coverage before the 2015 Super Bowl game, the NFL didn’t want to admit its own stupidity, since none of the officials involved knew the basic physics of how environmental conditions can affect the air pressure of a football, a piece of knowledge that might have stopped this nonsense in its tracks.

However, as the controversy dragged on, another factor arose. Rival team owners – sitting on the NFL Management Council – saw an opportunity to diminish the Patriots who have been a dominant team in the NFL since Brady emerged as a starter in 2001. Goodell admitted as much in his ruling rejecting Brady’s appeal of the suspension. Goodell said he allowed the Management Council to weigh in, urging certain facts be viewed in a hostile way against Brady.

In other words, owners who had suffered painful losses at the hands of Brady and the Patriots were permitted inside the process for deciding whether the Patriots star quarterback would be banned for a quarter of a season, thus giving these rival teams a better chance to climb over the Patriots and possibly win a Super Bowl.

Goodell said the Management Council, which controls his $35 million salary, urged him to view the absence of two Patriots equipment employees at the appeal hearing as proof of Brady’s guilt (even though the employees had testified repeatedly in other venues and had consistently denied tampering with the game balls).

Recognizing how fiercely competitive — and how thoroughly unscrupulous — some of these team owners are, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they would exploit any chance to hurt a rival.

But what that means is that Goodell’s protestation about him punishing Brady and the Patriots over Deflategate “to protect the integrity of the game” is just another NFL lie. Indeed, the opposite is the truth: the entire episode has been an assault on the integrity of the game, already partly implemented by stripping the Patriots of a first-round pick in the recent NFL draft.

Media Failure

The major U.S. news media also bent to the power of the NFL or gave in to a bias against Brady and the Patriots. Despite all the attention that the “Deflategate” saga received, ESPN, the nation’s top sports network which has a cozy multi-billion-dollar relationship with the NFL, failed to conduct any serious assessment of the dubious science behind the charges that the Patriots deflated footballs for the AFC Championship game on Jan. 18, 2015.

Over the past 16 months, ESPN essentially ignored the findings of many reputable scientists who disputed the NFL’s calculations. ESPN’s “Sport Science” did do a segment showing how miniscule the effect would be from a slight reduction in pounds per square inch of a football. But ESPN’s investigative unit “E:60” waited until the past few weeks before allowing on a cute spot showing how a seventh-grader named Ben Goodell (no relation to Roger) won a science-fair prize by demonstrating that weather conditions explained the drop in the footballs’ internal pressure.

But ESPN wasn’t alone in its journalistic negligence. Pretty much every mainstream news outlet, including The New York Times, has overwhelmingly taken the NFL’s side in this dispute. Yet, in doing so, the mainstream media ignored an interesting underlying story about how a giant corporation can do almost anything it wants even to one of its brightest stars (deeming him a perjurer and a cheater based on virtually no evidence) and there seems to be nothing anyone can do to stop it – although Brady is still placing some hope in the federal courts.

After Goodell oversaw the entire NFL investigation – from the accusation to the finding of guilt to the appeal – Brady did win one round when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman reviewed the case and found the process so arbitrary that he rescinded the suspension. However, because the NFL had maneuvered to put the case in a notoriously management-friendly federal court district in Manhattan, the league prevailed 2-1 before a U.S. Court of Appeals panel.

This week, Brady’s lawyers, led by prominent attorney Theodore Olson, filed a motion seeking a rehearing before the full Court of Appeals. The motion condemned “Goodell’s biased, agenda-driven, and self-approving ‘appeal’ ruling,” noting that Goodell had altered the reasons and logic for punishing Brady, thus denying Brady his legal rights.

The filing also said the court’s 2-1 ruling in favor of the NFL “will harm not just NFL players, but all unionized workers who have bargained for appeal rights as a protection — not as an opportunity for management to salvage a deficient disciplinary action by conjuring up new grounds for the punishment.”

Olson noted, too, that the NFL officials didn’t know the physics of footballs. “As NFL officials later admitted, no one involved understood that environmental factors alone — such as the cold and rainy weather during the game — could cause significant deflation,” the filing said.

“Nor did any NFL official claim that the underinflated balls affected the game’s outcome, particularly since Brady’s performance in the second half of the AFC Championship Game — after the Patriots game balls were re-inflated — improved.” (The Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 and then went on to win the Super Bowl.)

But Brady’s lawyers and the seventh-grader with his science project weren’t the only ones to recognize the weakness of the NFL’s grasp of physics. In support of Brady’s request for a rehearing, a legal brief was filed this week with the U.S. Court of Appeals by 21 professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, Berkeley; University of Michigan; Stanford University; University of Southern California; University of Delaware; Purdue University; University of Pennsylvania; Boston College; and the University of Minnesota.

Noting that deflation happens naturally whenever a ball is moved from a warm to a cold environment, the scientists said, “This is not tampering. It is science. And it pervades the NFL. Games routinely are played with footballs that fall below the league’s minimum pressure requirement.”

The scientists added that “Courts should not be powerless to consider the absence of scientific proof when a proceeding is so interlaced with laws of science.” However, so far, the courts have only addressed procedural issues regarding the scope of Goodell’s powers, avoiding a full-scale testing of the NFL’s evidentiary case.

If a court did undertake an assessment of the case’s merits, a number of interesting facts might come out that the major media has largely ignored. For instance, Olson’s filing noted that the work of the NFL’s consultants “hired to deny that environmental factors accounted for the pressure levels has been derided by independent physicists as junk science.”

The NFL hired Exponent, the same “science” consultant that took on the task of “disproving” the links between second-hand smoke and cancer. Exponent also has been the hired-gun for companies fighting accusations of toxic waste, asbestos exposure and car malfunctions.

In evaluating the NFL’s halftime football pressure tests of Jan. 18, 2015, Exponent accepted the parameters dictated by the NFL’s lawyers, including key ones regarding the sequencing of the halftime tests on a cold and rainy night in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The sequencing was important because the longer the balls were returned to a warm and dry room for examination the more the air pressure would go back up.

The timing distorted the comparative tests on several footballs used by the Indianapolis Colts which were tested later during halftime. Those footballs also registered below the legal level of 12.5 PSI on the one gauge that the NFL determined was accurate, but the drop-off was not as much as with the Patriots’ footballs that were tested earlier.

Ironically, the Colts, who were the ones who instigated the tests after intercepting a Brady pass and noting its below-12.5-PSI measurement, were allowed to continue using underinflated balls for the second half, meaning they played with underinflated footballs for both halves of the game while the Patriots’ footballs were pumped back up to above 12.5 PSI.

A Slanted Case

After the game, some NFL official leaked the initial finding of the Patriots having underinflated footballs in the first half but lied about the Colts’ footballs, claiming that they did not fall below the 12.5 PSI level. That falsehood, which was only corrected months later, led many football fans to jump to the conclusion that Brady and the Patriots must be guilty.

In evaluating the halftime data, Exponent only took into account the field’s chilly temperature (not the rain and the pre-game conditioning of the balls which also could have contributed to a lower PSI), but concluded that all or virtually all of the loss in PSI occurred naturally. Still, that slight uncertainty gave the NFL the space it needed to conclude that something else (i.e. intentional tampering) had occurred.

Goodell and his team then seized on innocuous actions (such as the ball boy Jim McNally stopping in a bathroom on his way to the field) or innocent gestures (such as Brady autographing a football for locker-room attendant John Jastremski ) as proof of a vile conspiracy.

The NFL also twisted text messages between McNally and Jastremski out of context. For example, one exchange about why footballs in an earlier game against the New York Jets had been over-inflated by NFL officials (above 13.5 PSI) was cited as proof of a deflation conspiracy. But the import of the exchange was actually the opposite, since neither party made any comment about why they had failed to deflate the balls below the legal limit, which would have been a natural expectation if indeed there was a deflation conspiracy.

In denying Brady’s appeal, Goodell acknowledged as much stating that the only time that the Patriots could have deflated footballs was before the 2015 AFC Championship game because only then did McNally carry the balls unattended to the field (and stopped briefly in a bathroom).

While that admission by Goodell knocked the legs out from under the larger conspiracy theory of the Patriots routinely deflating footballs, it also left out a key fact: the reason that McNally was unattended was because the earlier NFC Championship game had gone into overtime, forcing a delay in the start of the AFC game.

When the NFC game ended abruptly, there was confusion and urgency in the referees’ lounge. Since it was the responsibility of McNally to get the balls to the field, he took them there without waiting for a referee to accompany him.

The point, however, is that this situation was an unanticipated anomaly. It’s absurd to think that Brady and the Patriots were counting on the NFC game going into overtime, which would then delay the start of their game and cause McNally to be left unattended so he could then slip into a bathroom and – instead of relieving himself as he testified that he did – deflate a bag full of game balls so they could have a miniscule effect on Brady’s passing game.

But the absurdity of the conspiracy theory only underscores the unrestrained power of the NFL as an institution. If it says up is down, then it must be believed.

If some court would require a full presentation of the evidence, the process might open the door to the NFL’s motives in pursuing this silly case with a Javert-like zeal – whether to cover up the league’s incompetence or to give rival owners a competitive edge over the Patriots.

The CTE Scandal

The NFL showed similar arrogance and disrespect for science in its handling of the concussion issue. As the movie “Concussion” shows – and a PBS documentary further demonstrates – the NFL tried to silence early discoverers of the brain damage caused by routine football contact.

Dr. Bennet Omalu

Dr. Bennet Omalu

Though the movie adds a few fictional flourishes, it is essentially a true story about Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh pathologist from Nigeria who was assigned to examine the body of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster and discovered a previously undiagnosed disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

When Omalu’s findings were published, the NFL handpicked three doctors to refute his findings and demand that they be retracted. It was a classic case of a powerful corporation trying to destroy a little-known scientist who uncovered an inconvenient truth. The personal attacks on Omalu and other doctors who built on his initial findings grew so ugly that Omalu has said he regretted ever being assigned Webster’s autopsy.

As the evidence of a CTE epidemic among NFL and other football players continues to mount, the NFL still keeps trying to rig the scientific investigation, according to a congressional report released this week.

“Our investigation has shown that while the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research,” the study said. “The NFL attempted to use its ‘unrestricted gift’ as leverage to steer funding away from one of its critics.”

For its part, the NFL rejected the charge by Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce but added “There is no dispute that there were concerns raised about both the nature of the study in question and possible conflicts of interest,” an apparent reference to the fact that Dr. Robert Stern was a neurologist at Boston University, which spearheaded studies that confirmed Dr. Omalu’s initial findings.

After Dr. Stern was awarded the CTE project, the NFL reneged on its commitment to provide $16 million for the work, the congressional study said.

“The NFL’s troublesome interactions with the NIH fit a longstanding pattern of attempts to influence scientific understanding of degenerative diseases and sports-related head trauma,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, who oversaw the study.

In other words, the arrogant NFL remains at war with science and facts, a reality underscored by its cover-up of concussion dangers and by its witch hunt against Tom Brady.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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