NFL demands retraction of Times article on player concussions
The National Football League is demanding The New York Times retract an article published last week about the league's research into concussions among pro football players.
In a letter that was sent to the Times' legal counsel Monday and obtained by POLITICO, an attorney for the NFL, Brad S. Karp, called the story "false and defamatory" and issued a "demand that the story immediately be retracted."
In a line that seemed to threaten the possibility of further legal action, he wrote: "We also request that the Times's reporters and editors who worked on this story preserve their notes, correspondence, emails, recordings and work papers and all other electronic and hard copy documents generated or received in connection with their work."
In an exhaustive front-page story on March 25, journalists Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich and Jacqueline Williams reported that the NFL's concussion research was flawed, likening the league's "handling of its health crisis to that of the tobacco industry, which was notorious for using questionable science to play down the dangers of cigarettes."
The NFL has been aggressively countering the Times' reporting.
Spokesman Joe Lockhart published a 2,500-word rebuttal on the league's website, arguing that "the paper published pages of false innuendo and sheer speculation based on a mere handful of anecdotal and cursory references, twisted and contorted out of context, from a smattering of documents out of millions found on the tobacco litigation website."
Additionally, the NFL ran ads on nytimes.com to promote the steps it says it has taken to advance player safety; at least one of the ads appeared in a banner placement directly above the concussions story. The NFL also paid to promote its rebuttal on Twitter.
Sports editor Jason Stallman said the Times sees "no reason to retract anything."
In a statement to POLITICO, Stallman said, "Our reporting showed that more than 100 such concussions — including some sustained by star players — were not included in the [NFL's] data set, resulting in inaccurate findings." He also noted that a co-owner of the New York Giants has direct ties to the tobacco industry and that "the N.F.L. and the tobacco industry shared lobbyists, lawyers and consultants."
The NFL attorney argued in his letter that the Times piece was based on a "grand total of five pieces of circumstantial evidence, none of which—taken together or individually—comes close to establishing any meaningful 'tie' that reasonably can form the basis of the Times's knowingly false and incendiary charge."
Asked whether the NFL would sue if its demand for a retraction is not met, Lockhart said, "We won't prejudge the reaction of The New York Times. We make a strong argument for a retraction, one we expect them to take seriously."
High-profile investigative pieces like this one tend to invite intense push-back.
Last year, a Times exposé on the treatment of New York nail salon employees brought angry protesters to the paper's headquarters on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. And after its investigation into the workplace culture of Amazon, the technology company's spokesman, Jay Carney, posted a rebuttal on the publishing platform Medium, to which Times executive editor Dean Baquet responded in his own point-by-point Medium post.