The Pro Football Concussion Report

A Fan's Look at Head Injuries and the Concussion Crisis in Football

Pellman’s Concussion Passwords: Red Brick Broadway

New York Jet Al Toon (AP)
Tagliabue says he chose Pellman based on his work with Jet's Al Toon (AP)


“Pellman would ask, he’d say I’m going to give you three words and then we’re going to go through a series of tests and then I want you to repeat the three words . . . red, brick, broadway. When the time did come, you’d go ahead and just spit ’em out and you’d get cleared and go back into the game. It was kind of a running joke in the locker room because the words were always the same.”  – Retired New York Jets Center Kevin Mawae


Well, here we go again. On Sunday, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” (OTL) ran a story on the continuing saga of former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s strange selection of Dr. Elliot Pellman in 1994 as the league’s top concussion expert.

Pellman reigned for 13 years in a job that positioned him as possibly the most influential voice regarding sports concussions in the world.  Plenty has already been said about this absurd and possibly purposeful appointment (here, and here, and here, and here).

Tagliabue, Covington and Tobacco
In a nutshell, the brilliant Georgetown law grad Tagliabue came to the NFL from his position as a law partner at the blue-chip Washington D.C. law firm, Covington and Burling. Covington has worked for the NFL since at least 1960 and routinely defends and consults for big targets like Eli Lilly, Halliburton, Blackwater and Phillip Morris.  It was the Phillip Morris tobacco litigation work though that showed just how far these highly-paid, top of their class attorneys could go for their client. As a result of tobacco related legal discovery it was uncovered that attorneys at Covington had helped establish and manage sham science panels in which scientists from prestigious institutions Georgetown University rendered “objective appraisals” that dispelled conclusions that were unfavorable to the cigarette industry. A 2001 paper on the National Institutes of Health website details the shocking depth of involvement of Tagliabue’s previous firm in staffing and arranging independent seminars from 1993 to 2000 in order to promote “sound science.”  Later, in 2006 Judge Gladys Kessler specifically criticized the tobacco industry law firms in a 1,742 page opinion that pointed out how both in-house counsel and outside law firms “devised” and “coordinated” strategy, directed scientists’ research in favor of the industry, destroyed documents and “took shelter behind baseless assertions of attorney client privilege.”

What Covington lawyers were able to establish for the tobacco industry in regard to science panels pretty much sums up what plaintiffs attorneys are alleging the NFL has done with concussion science. Tagliabue set-up the controversial MTBE concussion panel in . . .  wait for it . . . 1994. (In his defense, Tagliabue has said that he chose Pellman based on the team doctor’s experience with Al Toon, who retired at age 29 due to concussion damage). Even today, a controversial concussion research study which benefits the NFL’s position in the massive concussion litigation reveals a surprising connection to the NFL’s law firm, Covington and Burling.

Paging Doctor Pellman, Paging Doctor Pellman . . . 
But the new OTL piece by journalists Steve Fainaru and John Barr introduces a new wrinkle to this dark comedy. According to the OTL story, last Wednesday 72 year-old Tagliabue confirmed that Pellman was also his personal physician from 1997 to 2006. Maybe on its own that relationship is not that weird, but it certainly seems to be worth mentioning while Pellman served in a very high-profile, neurological-based role at Tagliabue’s behest although appearing to nobody but Tagliabue to be qualified for the position.  Now if Tagliabue truly felt that Pellman was qualified to chair a neurological science panel for twelve years at his discretion, then it makes sense that he was seeing the rheumatologist Pellman for those nine years for a concussion problem, or brain injury issue, but certainly a neurological condition. Sure it could have been for arthritis, within Pellman’s licensed specialty, but Tagliabue didn’t put Pellman out there as a leader in rheumatology to head arthritis panels and author scientific arthritis papers.

Protecting the Golden Shield 
It’s impossible to believe at this point that NFL former and current execs like Paul Tagliabue, Roger Goodell and Jeff Pash, team owners like Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, and the Mara family, NFL law firms like Covington and Burling and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison will ever let this downward spiral end up like the tobacco lawsuits, in a humbling courtroom conclusion. These are certainly all successful, highly competitive, powerful people not used to losing at anything, but it doesn’t seem that this story is ever going to twist in the favor of the NFL and their rigid deflection about concussions and long-term brain damage. There’s just way too much old money, too much new money, too many charity events to go to, too many legacies to protect and too many clubs to pass on to their lucky kids for the owners to take this nonsense into court.

Footnote: recently reported that ESPN will be demoting “Outside the Lines” from ESPN to ESPN2 and will air the Sunday morning program one hour earlier at 8 a.m. ET. OTL’s 9 a.m. ESPN slot will be taken by the new show, “Cowherd on Football” featuring ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd.


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