The NFL, NCI, and Risk

This past month, the National Football League has come under intensified fire for how it has handled knowledge regarding potential long-term consequences of concussions even as it has earned points by being an active participant in the highly visible “awareness” campaign against another politicized health issue: breast cancer.

You don’t have to doubt the sincerity of the NFL’s pink campaign to notice that it nonetheless makes for great PR. It might even be said that the campaign – much like the NFL’s desire to establish a new franchise in London – is mainly about expanding their brand among new demographics.

What’s that you say? Only 8 percent of the money spent on pink merchandise actually goes to breast cancer research, with the lion’s share of the rest going to the NFL and individual teams? Maybe it really is all about business. I suppose that goes with the territory. They are, after all, a business.

Do we really expect the NFL to play the role of our public health institutions, from which we rightly expect a genuine, service-oriented quest for knowledge that would help us respond intelligently to the various causes of breast cancer?

I’ll return to that point in a moment. First, though, while NFL players were wearing pink this past October, PBS aired a documentary indicting the NFL over its approach to concussions. Suffice it to say that it clearly created its intended impression: that the NFL had knowledge about a possible relationship between concussions and other serious conditions later in life – and that, as its title, “League of Denial” plainly suggests, they actively tried to cover it up.

Now, that is a serious charge (and one I won’t weigh in on here). Even businesses have ethical imperatives to put the just treatment of their employees above the bottom line; that would entail being honest about particular risks so that people may make informed decisions.

In this instance, it appears that PBS investigated a plausible theory, while zeroing in on one of the private institutions in which concussions occur with some frequency.

Nevertheless, there are also grounds for suspicion that something aside from a pure aversion to concussions is at play. If that were the sole concern, consistency would demand that we’d have to do something about bicyclists. As a group, they sustain a greater number of traumatic brain injuries than do football players in general, much less the minute percentage that make it to the NFL. And what are we to do about girls who play soccer? After boys playing football, they suffer the most concussions.

Let us suppose for a moment that the documentary is entirely accurate in depicting the NFL as the culprit by virtue of its refusal to deal with knowledge it did not want to come to light. And let us further suppose that PBS (the media in general) is merely driven by an uncompromising desire to protect individuals from harm by furnishing inexcusably NFL-buried data.

Supposing all this, could you please tell me why, then, doesn’t PBS turn the same critical eye upon our leading cancer institutions that refuse to acknowledge the relationship between abortion and breast cancer? Because that it precisely what they have done.

I suspect that, of the minority aware that induced abortion is a risk factor (spontaneous abortions are not, by the way), a much smaller minority knows that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has proactively denied any such linkage, particularly since 2003, when they convened a meeting designed to officially dismiss the preponderance of evidence indicating this very connection.

Some insiders have since admitted the linkage; many acknowledge that to credit it would simply be “too political.” In other words, the science on this matter must be ignored; isn’t that one way we tend to describe fundamentalists?

At present, those who reject the mere suggestion of any linkage out of hand can simply point to our official “authorities” who have pronounced on the matter (out of deference to those who don’t want there to be one). But anyone sincerely pursuing the truth would have a difficult time dismissing Dr. Joel Brind’s devastating account of the NCI’s evasive maneuverings.

We can’t expect the NFL or even PBS to “raise awareness” about breast cancer if our leading public health institutions cannot summon the courage to be honest about its single most preventable cause. (Some other risk factors – i.e. predisposing genes – cannot be controlled).

Here it bears reiterating that abortion opponents have no need for any such connection. The moral argument against abortion has long been incontrovertibly settled, regardless of any subsequent consequences to physical health. The more germane consideration is that those who claim to revere science but ignore the available evidence do need abortion to be a perfectly harmless enterprise.

In many walks of life today, a cult of safety seems to prevail. But even safety takes a back seat to other decidedly unsafe actions. Risk itself has become politicized; some risks are to be highlighted, some denied altogether – even if, in practice, that means ignoring an elementary principle codified at Nuremberg: every individual must first grant fully informed consent, free of any form of deception or coercion, prior to any procedure.

It isn’t our finest hour when our own National Cancer Institute so boldly violates, rather than venerates, this basic imperative with impunity. And when PBS, dutifully, it seems, elects to take aim at the NFL and not the NCI.

As much as we like to distance ourselves from the abuses of the past and even accuse the innocent of past wrongdoings, Pius XII would never have been an accomplice to such deception. And he wasn’t even a scientist.

Isn’t dishonesty still universally frowned upon – antithetical as it is to the “scientific” mindset? And are Catholics the only ones who can supply a needed corrective to the ongoing ideological corruption of the healing professions?

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.