NFL demands retraction of New York Times story on concussions

Strong safety David Bruton of the Denver Broncos lies on the ground in pain after a play that would force him out of the game with a reported concussion during a game against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 28, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.

Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

NEW YORK-- The NFL has demanded The New York Times retract astory that called the league's concussion research flawed and likened the NFL's handling of head trauma to the tobacco industry's response to the dangers of cigarettes.

In a letter from its law firm to the general counsels of the newspaper and obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, the league said it was defamed by the Times. The NFL added the story published last Thursday did not "present a shred of evidence to support its thesis that the NFL intentionally concealed concussion research data."

The NFL also said it will "more broadly reserve all of the league's rights and remedies," a veiled threat of legal action.

Times sports editor Jason Stallman said, "We see no reason to retract anything."

"The NFL apparently objects to our reporting that the league had ties to the tobacco industry," Stallman added. "But, as the article noted, a co-owner of the Giants, Preston R. Tisch, also partly owned a leading cigarette company, Lorillard, and was a board member of both the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research, two entities that played a central role in misusing science to hide the risks of cigarettes. Also, the NFL and the tobacco industry shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants."

In its letter, signed by league attorney Brad Karp, the NFL said not only that the story did not establish any meaningful ties to the tobacco industry, but that the headline was false and incendiary, and that a graphic attached to the story was misleading.

An NFL search of 14 million documents from the tobacco litigation archives found "significant connections" between the Times and the tobacco industry, the letter said, calling those connections "far more concrete than the phantom connections contrived by the Times purporting to tie the NFL to the tobacco industry."

The Times story -- its lead item on the front page -- revealed that some concussions that occurred in the NFL were omitted from the league's studies, despite NFL claims to the contrary.

"The league has always maintained that the studies were based on a data set that included every concussion that was diagnosed by a team doctor," Stallman said. "In fact, our reporting showed that more than 100 such concussions - including some sustained by star players -- were not included in the data set, resulting in inaccurate findings. "

But the NFL's letter stresses that the fact the studies relied on data that were not a complete count of all concussions in the league was "repeatedly and expressly disclosed in the studies themselves." It also accuses the Times of implying to its readers that the newspaper uncovered "a secret and nefarious plot by the league to suppress relevant data and manipulate the test results in a manner learned through the league's 'ties' to Big Tobacco ..."

The NFL said the research the Times focused on forms no part of the current work by the league's head, neck and spine committee.

Five days ahead of Super Bowl 50, the NFL was studying how to deal with an alarming increase in concussions. The increase was from 115 concussions during the 2014 season to 182 in 2015. That's a 58 percent increase, and it came after the league cracked down on dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits.

After former New York Giant Tyler Sash died at 27 years old, doctors were shocked to discover he had a degenerative brain disease unusually advanced in someone so young, CBS News' John Blackstone reported. His mother Barnetta blames football.

"They could have all the money back if I could just have my son back. Nothing else matters. And you can't compensate anybody enough for that," she said.

In the movie "Concussion," Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who first identified the brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in football players. He battled the football establishment to have it recognized.

"Nobody is denying CTE any longer," Dr. Omalu told CBS News.

Dr. Omalu, a professor at UC Davis, has studied the brains of dozens of deceased NFL players.

How many of the players on the field on Super Bowl Sunday were already be suffering from brain damage?

"I believe that 90 to 100 percent of professional players will suffer from CTE," said Dr. Omalu.

But not everyone agrees.

"I think that's a bit of hyperbole, quite honestly. I can't imagine that being the case," said Dr. Mitch Berger.

Dr. Mitch Berger is a brain surgeon, and chair of a committee that monitors head injuries for the NFL. Over the past decade, the league has made dozens of rule changes to reduce the risk.

An athletic trainer dubbed "eye in the sky," watches for injuries from a stadium box and an independent neurological consultant monitors from the sidelines.

"Concussions are up," said Berger. "I think because of the vigilance, because of the unaffiliated neuro- trauma consultant, because of the spotter in the media box -- there were twice as many evaluations or screenings from concussions this year."

But Dr. Omalu believes it takes less than a concussion to damage the brain.

"By the time you reach the professional level, you must have received thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of blows to your head," he said.

A foundation established by Dr. Omalu is looking for ways to diagnose CTE.

The NFL is developing new equipment including helmets and turf to reduce head injuries.