Outside the Lines has just run a good piece on Dr. Elliot Pellman. Pellman was the Jets’ long-time team doctor. He was also head of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee from 1994 until 2007. He came under increasing fire in the years before he stepped down from the NFL committee for having downplayed the severe consequences of repeated head trauma on the long-term health of football players. OTL did a report back in 2006 about the mounting criticisms of Pellman and his committee. Like the recent report, the 2006 OTL piece pointed out that Pellman was a rheumatologist with no background in neurology. While Pellman was head of the MBTI committee, it produced a series of reports. One, from 2005, drew the conclusion that “return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.” And as recently as 2007, Pellman’s last year as chair of the MBTI committee, the NFL issued a pamphlet stating that “current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly.” The new OTL report interviews two former Jets, including Kyle Brady and Kevin Mawae, who said that they’d been sent back into games by Pellman when they had no business getting anywhere near the field. It also notes that Pellman once served as a physician to former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and quotes one source as saying that what Pellman lacked in relevant medical background, he made up for by being a politically savvy operator who positioned himself well with the league.
Pellman’s name comes up often in litigation now pending in litigation being brought on behalf of retired NFL players, including a massive lawsuit involving over 4,000 retired players. These lawsuits contend that the league knowingly ignored the mounting medical evidence that repeated head trauma would do lasting damage to its victims, particularly in the form of the syndrome CTE – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, associated with severe neurological deterioration, depression and suicide, according to researchers like Dr. Ann McKee. In one segment of the recent report for OTL, ESPN’s John Barr asked Commissioner Goodell about Pellman’s long-time role on the committee. Goodell defensively responded that Pellman was only one member of what was, in fact, a committee. Of course, if the NFL official committee for all those years produced research as shoddy as its critics claim, this won’t be much of a defense. But it’s an indication of the lightning rod that Pellman himself has become.
Pro football, as almost every talking head on ESPN never tires of saying, is by far the most popular sport in the United States today – a booming business with $9 billion in annual revenue, making it the most lucrative sports league in the world, according to Forbes Magazine. And according to Forbes, Commissioner Goodell foresees potential annual revenues of $25 billion by the year 2027. What’s fascinating about the league’s undeniable success is that, more than the other major team sports – baseball and basketball – that success sits uneasily astride the prospect (however remote) that football faces a possible extinction event at some future point. Analogies like the one that Malcolm Gladwell has drawn between football and dog-fighting are imperfect. But the NFL is in the somewhat extraordinary position of facing both the brightest and darkest future of any major sport.
In any event, at least one arm of ESPN – Outside the Lines – continues to do good work covering this story.