The Athletic: Failure to Disclose: The mysterious absence of critical data from UNC’s renowned concussion research
For the full article: https://theathletic.com/1261858/2019/10/08/failure-to-disclose-the-mysterious-absence-of-critical-data-from-uncs-renowned-concussion-research/ailure to Disclose: The mysterious absence of critical data from UNC’s renowned concussion researchussion research
By Christian Red
Dressed in a crisp, dark suit, a Carolina blue tie snug against his neck and with dirty-blond stubble dotting his chin and upper lip, Kevin Guskiewicz stood before a podium in a conference room at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s department of exercise and sport science and introduced a special guest speaker.
“I’m proud to call Roger Goodell a friend and a colleague,” Guskiewicz said in his introductory remarks on March 6, 2013, “someone with whom I’ve sat at the table, rolled up our sleeves and tried to tackle some of the most serious issues around health and safety for players.”
At the time, Goodell, the NFL commissioner, was at the peak of his popularity. A massive class-action concussion lawsuit against the league had been filed by former NFL players in 2011 and media stories critical of Goodell had been published, but the concussion crisis hadn’t yet engulfed the sport. And the Ray Rice video showing the Ravens player assaulting his then-girlfriend had yet to surface, a shocking incident that increased scrutiny over the NFL’s mishandling of incidents of domestic violence. Three months prior to his talk at UNC, Goodell was Time magazine’s cover subject ¬– the headline, “The Enforcer” emblazoned in red across his chest.
Guskiewicz was a star of equal brightness in his field, and although he didn’t grace Time’s front page like Goodell, the magazine called Guskiewicz a “game changer” in a 2013 feature in which he was profiled with more than a dozen other “innovators and problem-solvers that are inspiring change in America.”
“Through his research on sport-related concussions, Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz is literally changing the game – from innovative sideline tests in football to the study of long-term effects in all sports,” the Time blurb read.
A certified athletic trainer who early in his career worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Guskiewicz was hired by UNC in 1995 and later he became the founding director of the university’s Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center (named after a North Carolina high school football player who died in 2008 after suffering a TBI on the field). Guskiewicz quickly became one of the leading scholars in concussion research. In 2011, Guskiewicz was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship – a “genius grant” – and $500,000 to further his work.
Thanks to Guskiewicz, UNC had one of the country’s leading concussion/TBI research centers by 2013. He collaborated with the NCAA and NFL on numerous issues involving player safety. He served on the NFL’s influential Head, Neck and Spine Committee. So well regarded was Guskiewicz in the concussion/TBI field of research that he exchanged several emails with the NFL’s then-communications chief Greg Aiello weeks before Goodell’s arrival on campus that shaped Goodell’s presentation. “Please don’t worry about lifting any of this and making these ‘Rogers’ (sic) words,’” reads part of an email Guskiewicz wrote to Aiello. Throughout his talk, Goodell used snippets of Guskiewicz’s suggestions, sometimes verbatim.
Yes, Guskiewicz’s clout was such that he could put words directly into the NFL commissioner’s mouth.
At the time of Goodell’s speech, Guskiewicz and his research also stood out as a much-needed positive on a UNC campus mired in scandal. A 2012 report commissioned by former North Carolina governor Jim Martin laid bare sprawling academic fraud. Student-athletes had, for years, enrolled in bogus courses known as “paper classes” in the African and Afro-American Studies department. A 2014 independent investigation conducted by a former Justice Department official only further sullied the school’s reputation.
UNC could point to Guskiewicz and his research as evidence of what was right at the school. Later, he became the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and then, this past February, he was named UNC’s interim chancellor.
But now, like Goodell before him, Guskiewicz’s credibility has been called into question, as has the concussion research he and others working with him have generated for years. A paper published in June in the Journal of Scientific Practice and Integrity (JoSPI) details abnormally high rates of learning disability (LD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses among incoming UNC football players over a nine-year stretch, evidence of possible gross misuse of stimulant medication by UNC athletes, and the use of LD/ADHD athletes as UNC test subjects in concussion/TBI research. The last detail is most consequential as it pertains to Guskiewicz, as he and others failed to disclose or account for that criteria in many published peer-reviewed articles, which is standard practice in concussion research.
Over the past nine months, The Athletic gained access to research done by Ted Tatos, a University of Utah adjunct professor and economist, and Donald Comrie, the chief executive officer of NeuroLabs, a Manhattan-based scientific management and consulting company focused on the central nervous system. They authored the JoSPI paper, “Cognitive Deficits and LD/ADHD Among College Football Athletes and Undisclosed Inclusion in Concussion Research” that published in June. The Athletic also interviewed more than a dozen physicians, scientists and experts in concussion/TBI research for a three-part video documentary – anchored by The Athletic’s Armen Keteyian – and for this article.
At the heart of the 11,000-word paper authored by Tatos and Comrie and evident throughout the reporting done by The Athletic, 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.
“I’m not diagnosing these people, and I’m not saying I’m an expert in diagnosing ADHD,” says Tatos. “I am an expert in statistics. And I am an expert in doing research. I know bad statistics when I see it … I do think there’s some evidence of scientific misconduct and that some of those papers need to be reviewed and retracted.”
Adds Comrie, who has worked with the NFL Players Association in concussion settlement matters: “What is an even greater scare to me, how many people cited (these papers)?”