For years, Dr. Elliot Pellman has been a central figure in the NFL’s concussion crisis. As chairman of the league’s powerful research arm for more than a decade, Pellman led efforts to discredit independent scientists and presided over studies that portrayed concussions as minor injuries. His name appears 26 times in a lawsuit that contends the NFL concealed a link between football and brain damage.
But interviews and previously unpublished documents raise new questions about how Pellman — a Long Island rheumatologist with no previous expertise in brain research — came to wield so much authority over the NFL’s concussion program. Pellman, who remains employed by the league, served as Paul Tagliabue’s personal physician for nearly a decade, “Outside the Lines” and “Frontline” have learned, while Pellman led the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which shaped the NFL’s concussion policies. As New York Jets team doctor at the same time, Pellman put those policies into practice, often allowing concussed athletes back into games, according to players and other sources.
Tagliabue confirmed Wednesday he had been treated by Pellman, but not until 1997, three years after he had appointed Pellman to lead the concussion committee. “No personal medical care had anything to do with Dr. Pellman’s appointment to the committee in 1994,” the former commissioner said a statement released by NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. Aiello said Tagliabue saw Pellman “on occasion” as a patient for nine years until Tagliabue retired in 2006.
Pellman’s relationship with Tagliabue is certain to be explored thoroughly if the lawsuit filed by more than 4,800 retired players against the NFL moves forward. The league has distanced itself from the MTBI committee, asserting that its work was independent. The league also says its Head, Neck and Spine Committee, which replaced the MTBI group, operates independently of the league office. Last month, a judge ordered the two sides in the lawsuit to mediation to seek a settlement.
“This is something that should scare the hell out of the NFL as part of the concussion litigation,” Warren Zola, a sports law expert and assistant dean at Boston College, said when told of Pellman’s doctor-patient relationship with Tagliabue.