Conflicts of Interest: Celebrity CTE Talking Heads Face Scrutiny

Chris Nowinski, a talking head in PBS’s League of Denial documentary, hosts a press conference today at the Times Square Sheraton on the Hit Count program pushed by his Sports Legacy Institute (SLI). Time will tell whether equipping football helmets with expensive gizmos detecting impacts will help players. Nowinski’s wallet tells us that they have already enriched him.

Nowinski’s SLI touts the devices as enabling “a ‘Pitch Count’ for the brain.” A SLI press release announcing the event at the NFL’s host hotel for Super Bowl week claims, “Hit Count will be an innovative new way of utilizing real-time head acceleration data to help coaches, parents, and athletes play sports with a lower risk of concussion and long-term problems.”

Is this Chris Nowinski’s nonprofit speaking or his profits speaking?

The Boston Globe reported in late December that Nowinski roomed at Harvard with one of the inventors of MC10’s Checklight impact detector. The former WWE wrestler served as a paid consultant to the company for these helmet sensors. His Sports Legacy Institute received at least $25,000 in grants from MC10 and various fledgling companies marketing hit-count products.

Athletes pay for concussions. Their celebrity advocates get paid for them.

Though Nowinski touted the idea of hit counts in his book Head Games long before his consulting deal with MC10, the entangling financial arrangement illustrates the difficulties parents and coaches face in discerning product pitch from professional assessment. Can an expert perform as an honest broker in assessing a consumer good when the expert has a financial stake in that item?

Brooke de Lenche, founder of Moms Team, an organization committed to imparting accurate information on sports safety to parents, insists that the vast majority of doctors and experts supplying information on concussions have the interests of athletes primarily at heart. “Sports parents have a difficult time knowing who to trust with so much conflicting concussion related information that is floating around,” explains de Lenche, “and if professionals from the medical community have an appearance of supporting one product over another it becomes very confusing.”

Nowinski the concussion crusader hyping a commercial product follows the template established by his two mentors, Drs. Robert Cantu and Julian Bailes. Though concussion activists have been quick to dismiss dissent as coming from “NFL doctors” and other bought opinions, several of the figures identified most strongly with their cause maintain financial ties that make it easy to predict the words that will come out of their mouths by tracing the dollars that have entered their pockets. The quickly shifting dollars anticipate quickly shifting words.

The Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler wrote in late December that “for all his contributions, [Robert] Cantu’s roots in the field have grown so tangled that his connections with parties on many sides of the concussion crisis have become emblematic of the conflicting interests in the football, helmet, medical, and scientific communities.” Hohler and others have noted Cantu’s $800-an-hour consulting fee from advising the retired players suing the NFL and Riddell helmets conflicting with his work for the NFL’s head, neck, and spine committee and the seventeen years he has spent as the vice president of the body certifying safe football helmets.

Cantu similarly criticized the academic journal Neurosurgery at length for the League of Denial documentary, which depicts it as the scholarly arm of the NFL and in denial about CTE. “They were making comments which were greatly at odds with prospective, double-blinded studies done at the college and the high school level that just weren’t finding the same things,” Cantu told PBS viewers. “And that just didn’t make sense to anyone that’s a scientist.” But Cantu edited Neurosurgery’s sports medicine section during this controversial period, an inconvenient fact mentioned by the documentary. Like his work with the NFL and the helmet manufacturers, Cantu’s efforts on behalf of Neurosurgery suggests a chutzpah that gives him the ability to not just wash his hands of controversial work but to attack it as though he had no part in it.

In 2007, the New York Times described the neurosurgeon as a voice who had “repeatedly criticized the N.F.L.’s handling of concussions.” By 2012, Cantu had changed course. “”Five years ago the National Football was in a state of denial about head trauma in its game,” he wrote in Concussions and Our Kids. “Today, it’s a force for change.” What forced Cantu’s change? The NFL altered rules and rhetoric. The ratings juggernaut also awarded Cantu’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy $1 million. Subsequently, Cantu-affiliated groups again appeared on the outs for NFL funding, and the NFL again appeared on the outs with Cantu in his frequent pontifications in the press.

Like Nowinski, Cantu has praised MC10’s Checklight. “It’s a blatant conflict of interest,’’ Danny Crossman, who owns the company that developed the competing Shockbox, told the Boston Globe about Cantu’s nonprofit receiving funds from the outfit he praises.

Prior to partnering with Cantu in SLI, Nowinski teamed up with Julian Bailes. “You know, there was no greater feeling than being a single neurosurgeon in Pittsburgh and going to the Porsche dealership and writing a check for $120,000 and driving this Porsche out and not even caring,” Bailes explained to the authors of League of Denial. “I went through about five of them.”

In November, Bailes told ESPN that TauMark’s headline-grabbing CTE brain scans on Tony Dorsett, Mark Duper, and other living NFL greats were a “game changer.” What ESPN didn’t tell us is that Bailes founded the company behind the brain scans. They also didn’t tell us that Bailes had written earlier that year in a peer-reviewed article that “there is currently no accepted method of diagnosing CTE until post-mortem pathological analysis has been conducted.” This article came out after a majority of his CTE tests on living NFL players had been completed but before he had founded TauMark along with six cohorts.

Bailes steadfastly denied any financial stake in TauMark to Breitbart Sports in November, characterizing his relationship to the company as that of an unpaid advisor. “Neither I, nor any member of my family, [am a] stockholder, investor, Director, member, [or] paid consultant for TauMark, and I have not received any financial remuneration of any type from TauMark,” Bailes wrote. But when confronted with incorporation papers from the West Virginia’s secretary of state’s office showing him as a partner in the business venture that he started under a different name than TauMark just a few months earlier, the neurologist admitted that he had founded the limited-liability company based in his small Louisiana hometown. He claimed that at some point between the spring founding and the fall publicity campaign surrounding the tests, he had withdrawn his ownership stake. He concluded, “I do not intend to answer any further inquiries from you.”

But at that point, and for more than a month thereafter, West Virginia continued to show Bailes as a TauMark owner. Not until long after Breitbart Sports revealed his role in founding the company did the online-available legal documents show a change in Bailes’s status. West Virginia no longer lists him as an owner of the company whose product he praised in the press. Several other doctors--including Bennet Omalu--all of whom also affirmed in 2013 scholarly articles that CTE could only be tested upon autopsy, remain as owners of TauMark, which purports to test CTE in the living despite neither FDA approval nor independent peer-reviewed literature supporting this boast.

Bailes, Cantu, and Nowinski will all speak in New York City in the lead up to the Super Bowl this week. The NFL may have ten billion reasons to downplay concussions, CTE, and other health concerns involving the game. Bailes, Cantu, Nowinski, and others have financial incentives to sensationalize those concerns.

Parents, coaches, and players are left with endless questions about concussions, CTE, and the safety of a sport played by nearly four million kids. Heading into the Super Bowl, the answers they’ve received are as varied as they are sensationalistic.

“The media doesn’t want to listen to the scientists who stick to the science,” de Lench maintained. “But they are more than happy to listen to, and run with, the scientists who are willing to go beyond the science.”

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.


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