New questions about NFL doctor

BySteve Fainaru and John Barr Via <a Href="" Title="espn" Class="espn_sc_byline">espn </a>
July 20, 2016, 2:50 PM

&#151; -- 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But interviews and previously unpublished documents raise new questions about how Pellman -- a Long Island rheumatologist with no previous expertise in brain research -- came to wield so much authority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 in 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.

As a veteran team doctor with experience treating concussions, Pellman might have been qualified to lead the committee, but his relationship with Tagliabue could undermine his credibility, Zola said.

"As a matter of law, I'm not sure it would be all that damning," Zola said. "But if the NFL were to find themselves in front of a jury, the jury would likely interpret this as evidence of negligence. It's another rationale for the NFL to try to settle."

In 2005, the New York Times revealed that Pellman embellished his credentials and failed to disclose that he attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico. Pellman acknowledged the mistakes, which he said were unintentional and primarily made by people he worked with.

Pellman, who joined the Jets in 1988, wrote in October 2003 that Tagliabue invited him to lead the NFL's research after Pellman treated Al Toon, a Jets receiver forced into retirement in 1992 -- the first in a series of prominent head injuries that led to players retiring prematurely.

"The commissioner and I realized that we had many more questions than answers," Pellman wrote in the medical journal "Neurosurgery." "I was asked to mount an effort to answer these questions."

Tagliabue retired in 2006. The following year, Pellman stepped down as chairman of the MTBI committee, although he was retained as a committee member. Pellman's doctor-patient relationship with Tagliabue was known among some committee members.

Tagliabue, in his statement, said that he had "never heard of Elliot Pellman until his service as the Jets' team physician came to my attention. His appointment to the committee was based on his experience in sports medicine, his work with the Jets that included Toon's concussion-related retirement and Dennis Byrd's spinal cord injury, and recommendations from Jets ownership and management."

Pellman declined repeated interview requests for this story, but in a brief telephone exchange said information about whether he is or was Tagliabue's doctor "is between myself and Paul Tagliabue. I can't talk about that."

In 2003, the NFL -- with Pellman still in charge of the committee -- published the first of 16 studies, many of which suggested concussions were not a significant problem in the NFL. Tagliabue had previously expressed skepticism about the seriousness of the league's concussion problem.

Pellman was the lead author in nine of the studies. The league concluded repeatedly that no NFL player had suffered brain damage. In 2005, Pellman and two colleagues on the MTBI committee tried unsuccessfully to force the retraction of a peer-reviewed paper asserting that football gave Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster brain damage. The demand was seen as highly unusual in a scientific journal because such actions are normally reserved for transgressions such as fraud or plagiarism.

The NFL has since reversed course, implementing rule changes that in some cases directly contradict the league's earlier findings. Concussed players are no longer allowed to return in the same game, for example. In 2005, a Pellman-led NFL study concluded "many NFL players can be safely allowed to return to play on the day of injury after sustaining an MTBI."

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