October 28, 2019
The theory of relativity states that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Recent headlines have driven that point home and some seemingly unrelated stories intersect at one common point—football. Upon closer examination of the stories however, you see how they are entwined and how certain actions produce the reactions that mimic physical law.
The first headline revolves around a paper authored by economist Ted Tatos and NeuroLabs scientific consultant Don Comrie in The Journal of Scientific and Research Integrity, published in June. The article was based on three years of detailed analysis of documents released by the University of North Carolina in the aftermath of their highly publicized academic scandal.
The data analyzed came from among nearly two-million documents that were publicly released pursuant to public records requests from Charlotte News Observer and The Daily Tar Heel and covers the period between 2004 and 2012. The documents are still publicly available and can be accessed here. As a professor of economics at the University of Utah whose mother attended UNC, Tatos began scanning through the documents prompted by curiosity, but quickly became alarmed at the high incidences of ADHD that he observed and began digging deeper.
When reviewing the records, he noted that UNC ordered testing for freshman athletes to screen for Education Impacting Disabilities (EIDS) which is a common practice. What isn’t common is for the results of the testing to become public. As he pieced the data together aided by OCR scanning, he discovered that 39% of UNC athletes were diagnosed with LD/ADHD including 54% of football players compared with 2.4% of the general population in the same age group during the 8-year period.
Tatos also discovered that most of the athletes who were diagnosed were also prescribed psychostimulant medications like Ritalin and Adderall, which leads to several concerns.
First of all the baseline testing done on the athletes lead to their diagnoses of EIDs. The psychostimulants used to medicate ADHD and other learning disorders have a role in managing the neurocognitive sequelae of traumatic brain injury. Concussed players who have been medicated run the risk of inaccurate test results and premature return to play because their scores are artificially boosted by the medications compared with their unmedicated baselines.
Another concern is that WADA has classified drugs of this nature as performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). It’s not outside the scope of possibility that athletes with borderline results could be administered the stimulants to enhance their performance on the field as opposed to the classroom, although based on the testing and all other indications Tatos seemed to believe the diagnoses were legitimate, and that brings up perhaps the most critical concern of all.
Tatos examined the neuropsychological test scores of athletes diagnosed with EIDs and found them to be consistent with the scores of patients who have suffered brain injury.
“The first thing we said when we saw these numbers was ‘holy s—t,’ co-author Don Comrie said to Patrick Hruby as related in a HReal Sports article. Comrie, who has counseled the NFLPA and objectors in the NFL Concussion Litigation was familiar with the myriads of issues suffered by professional football players but the prevalence of ADHD and low neuropsych scores for incoming college freshmen seemed to be an indicator that football induced cognitive decline may take hold long before a player reaches the NFL.
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The results of Tatos and Comrie’s study bring us to the first intersection, though it’s not really a headline—yet. In May 2017 I wrote about a newly filed lawsuit seeking accountability for the untimely death of Adrian Robinson, Jr. at age 25.
Adrian was born into a football family and as such, his loving parents wanted to give him every opportunity to participate in and succeed in their favorite sport. They enrolled him in youth football at the age of six. Adrian enjoyed football and seemed to have a natural talent for it, but the longer he played, the more behavioral changes Terri and Adrian Sr. began to see in their son. At age eleven he was diagnosed with ADD and placed on medications to improve his concentration but the medicine didn’t seem to help much if at all.
As the Robinsons cheered for their son as his football prowess grew they didn’t understand why he struggled so in school. By the time he turned 14, Adrian was failing many of his classes while concurrently complaining of frequent headaches and jaw pain. He had to take ibuprofen constantly in order to cope. Neither Adrian’s parents nor his doctors could figure out why the young man was struggling so. His pediatrician documented significant neurobehavioral and/or neurocognitive, as well as emotional issues but could not determine the source of Adrian’s problems.
Despite his academic and emotional struggles, Adrian Jr. was a star player in high school, where he was known as a “ferocious defender, a player who could almost single-handedly change the outcome of a game.” He was recruited by Temple University and honored as the Mid-Atlantic conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2012. During his two years in the NFL, Adrian was bounced between 4 teams and played 22 games. When he was cut by the Redskins at the end of the 2014 season he signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
His family and friends recall his disappointment in leaving the NFL but didn’t see any red flags in his behavior. He seemed anxious to begin working out with the Tiger-Cats and by this time he and his girlfriend had welcomed a beautiful little daughter into their lives, whom Adrian adored. On May 12, 2015, he tweeted:
Summer and the laugh of my daughter make me believe in God. 🙏🙏
— Adrian Robinson JR. (@CuatroTres) May 12, 2015
That would become his final tweet which now seems frozen in time on his Twitter account. Only four days later on May 16, he committed suicide.
Via an obituary on PennLive:
“Anyone who heard Terri Robinson’s mournful wailing that morning at the church knows she is not ready to talk about her son’s death. Adrian Robinson Sr. twice agreed to sit down with PennLive. Twice he canceled at the last minute. He just isn’t ready to talk. . . The pastors remembered him as a quiet, respectful young man. The hulking giants who had played football with him at Temple University and the coaches who had mentored him since grade school took their place among the friends, teachers and classmates. Heartfelt tributes recalled him as a loving and generous-hearted young man.
Robinson should have been packing up to head to Canada, where in two weeks he was due to report for training with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a professional football team.
Instead, Robinson – “AD” as everyone called him – was laid out in an open casket adorned with red roses, flanked by his framed jerseys – Big 33, Harrisburg High School, Temple University and the Pittsburgh Steelers. A life extinguished at 25 had severed the promise of a journey about to unfold.”
It was shortly after his death that Adrian’s family first learned about CTE. They sent his brain to be studied at Boston University, and the researchers notified the family on October 12, 2015, that Adrian Jr. did indeed suffer from the loathsome disease.
The lawsuit against the NFL filed by Adrian’s parents, girlfriend and daughter, seeking accountability for his death doesn’t attribute the CTE that precipitated his death to his time playing NFL football—that was only two years of football exposure as opposed to the 17 years of football exposure prior to being drafted into the National Football League.
Instead, the Robinsons blame the NFL for deceiving them into believing that youth football was safe and placing their 6-year-old son in harm’s way. In retrospect, the ADD diagnosis and his emotional troubles made sense. It was only 4 years after he started playing football that the issues that confounded them began to surface.
This is why Tatos and Comrie’s discovery of high levels of ADHD at UNC is so concerning. How many players diagnosed may have been struggling for years just as had been the case with Adrian? What’s happening with those players now? Since the records were redacted of identifying information, it’s impossible to say, but it’s cause for concern. Have others taken their own lives while no one made a connection? Are others working menial jobs or find themselves unable to hold a job despite their UNC degrees? A large number of NFL wives have reported domestic violence as indicated in the video below.
Domestic violence is rampant in the United States. Could sports induced brain injury be a factor?
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While Adrian Robinson Jr. was still toddling in diapers the NFL and company decided to get into the business of “research.” They established a committee on MTBI and used the NFL Charities to, as the complaint stated, “create self-serving pseudo-science on repetitive brain injury. . . they would fund unethical and flawed scientific studies to advance self-serving conclusions on testing methodologies, on brain injury, and on protective equipment-specifically football helmets and to a lesser extent mouthpieces.”
This was the science that the Robinsons believed and depended on when they enrolled little Adrian in football. The NFL used Big Tobacco tactics both to addict people and especially children like Adrian to their product while at the same time promoting research that was significantly and knowingly flawed to deceive parents. Even some of the same researchers who performed deceptive research on tobacco participated in the NFL’s sham research.
This brings us to the next intersecting headline. For years—since the first CTE/concussion lawsuits were filed against the NFL the NFL’s insurers have been trying to find out what they NFL knew regarding brain injury since if they can ascertain the NFL concealed its knowledge and deceived players, the public, and its insurers they will not be liable to pay for the massive concussion settlement the NFL agreed to without consulting them.
After years of stalling it appears the court will finally allow meaningful discovery to take place. As reported by Daniel Kaplan in the Athletic, the judge presiding over the insurers’ litigation has finally given the green light to investigate the alleged tobacco links.
Specifically, the insurers have been allowed to add “Lorillard” to the search terms the NFL must produce. This is significant as explained in Justice Andrea Masley’s order.
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This brings us to our next headline and another article in The Athletic. Christian Red cited the study done by Tatos and Comrie as well of pulling some threads of his own when he penned “Failure to Disclose: The mysterious absence of critical data from UNC’s renowned concussion research.”
The University of North Carolina has been considered a leader in concussion research using its football players as subjects. As Tatos pointed out, in failing to disclose the large number of players with ADHD and other learning disabilities as well as the medications the players were administered, the research is likely defective and unreliable.
Kevin Guskiewicz is the director of UNC’s concussion research. As Red explains in 2013 the NFL had not yet settled with its players nor had the Ray Rice scandal emerged raising questions about the league’s handling of domestic violence. Though Dr. Bennett Omalu published his groundbreaking paper describing the condition of Mike Webster’s brain and the NFL had reactively worked to try to discredit Dr. Omalu and his work, not much talk of concussions had made its way to the general public and dinner tables across America. Ironically, Adrian Robinson was midway through his NFL career when this meeting took place.
Guskiewicz, as a scientist should have been well aware of Dr. Omalu’s work and that of Boston University that quickly rose as a leader in CTE research, and he should have also been aware of the NFL’s attempts to silence and discredit Omalu while pushing it’s own industry-friendly narrative. So why did Guskiewicz consider Goodell a leader or possibly a partner in trying “to tackle some of the most serious issues around health and safety for players?”
Ironically both men were recognized in Time magazine that year.
Red notes that under Guskiewicz UNC was recognized as one of the country’s leaders in concussion/TBI research, “a much needed positive” for a campus mired in the academic scandal that would eventually result in the release of the documents on which Tatos based his findings.
“At the heart of the 11,000-word paper authored by Tatos and Comrie and evident throughout the reporting done by The Athletic,” Red writes, “is the alarming possibility that decades of work on concussion research, data used by the NFL, NCAA schools, and even the Department of Defense, may now be invalid. They found 11 concussion papers that used UNC football players drawn from the same study groups over a nine-year period with abnormally high ADHD rates. But that critical modifying factor was never disclosed in papers that appeared in prominent scientific journals. Ten of those papers were co-authored by Kevin Guskiewicz.”
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While the paper by Tatos and Comrie, published in June had mostly flown under the radar, when The Athletic published their article in early August, along with a three-part video documentary, in which the publication interviewed more than a dozen independent doctors and scientists, UNC and certain other scientist who likely have a stake in the game, reacted in much the same manner as the NFL had reacted to Dr. Omalu’s work.
They sent a scathing letter to the interim chancellor at UNC expressing outrage at The Athletic’s implications of research misconduct. Instead of presenting any evidence-based studies to refute Tatos and Comrie’s findings, they employed the age-old fallback of attacking the bringers of bad news, just as the NFL did regarding Omalu in the early 2000s.
They praised Guskiewicz with empty accolades based on his standing and reputation which now seems based on deception. Why might they do this?
As is often the case, if you follow the money, you’ll typically find the answers to your questions. As fate would have it, The Athletic already had that base covered.
UNC is already one of the core schools participating in the CARE Consortium – a partnership between the Department of Defense and NCAA, which began in 2014 and has received $64 million in funding so far. Last year, the NFL awarded UNC-Chapel Hill part of a $14.7 million grant for a joint concussion/TBI study, giving Guskiewicz another sizeable chunk of money to channel into UNC’s research efforts.
They further noted how deposition testimony by Guskiewicz contradicted both the critics and the omissions of his own research.
In 2015, he gave a videotaped deposition in the lawsuit between the parents of Derek Sheely and several defendants, including the NCAA. Sheely was a fullback at Frostburg (Md.) State University in 2011 when he died after sustaining a head injury during practice. (The Sheely family reached a $1.2 million settlement with the NCAA in 2016, according to the Baltimore Sun.) “I see value in some cases, especially in athletes that have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorders that the baseline testing is valuable,” Guskiewicz said in his deposition.
To tie in one additional headline, underscoring the scientific misconduct of the NFL and UNC, we can look to Johnson and Johnson, who has recently been under fire for their own deceptions in regard to their baby powder product.
Facing off against a plaintiff’s lawyer for the first time about its baby powder, Johnson and Johnson’s CEO insisted the company’s iconic brand was safe. Just thirteen days later, the FDA discovered a bottle containing asbestos https://t.co/nGmr24ZUzw pic.twitter.com/8GFQKko6qq
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 22, 2019
We’ve seen this time and again with products ranging from asbestos to tobacco, to mesh, to countless pharmaceuticals. Perhaps one day government will ban publication of stakeholders’ research and prohibit research funded by stakeholders. Considering the power and influence of lobbyists on government, that’s probably a pipe dream, but until that day comes consumers will continue to be confused and innocent people will continue to be harmed by the greed of corporate interests.
Tatos and Comrie each released rebuttals to the attacks on their work.
The chancellor’s opening defense revolves around the premise that an extensive internal and external study review process negates the necessity to investigate his findings. However, a study review relies on the candor, quality of data, and compliance with medical standards by the author to successfully perform its function…Chancellor Guskiewicz’s statement was intended to cow the authors. On the contrary, it not only motivated our interest in examining the balance of his articles but also should encourage fellow members of the scientific community to follow suit.
Tatos points out that none of the information upon their research was manufactured but instead produced by the source that now seeks to refute it.
UNC researchers declined to speak on the record with the Athletic and to answer any questions raised both in our paper and in The Athletic’s own nine-month investigation. Rather, in response to the publication of the documentary pieces on October 8, 2019, UNC’s TBI research center issued a terse response that can be found here. Instead of addressing the specific issues we raised, UNC’s response targeted the messengers. They launched a scurrilous assault on our paper, on the journal that published it, and the editor of that journal, Dr. David Egilman of Brown University, who, it should be noted, recused himself from involvement with our paper during the review process. These personal attacks distract from the fact the University is arguing with its own records, a point to which they appear to have no answer and appear unwilling to even articulate a response.
The cycle seems endless and tiring. Just as Adrian Robinson’s parents were deceived, other parents will continue to be deceived, and more mothers will wail in grief at the needless loss of their children until the charades cease.
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Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.