Pittsburgh Steelers’ Physician Joseph Maroon Key Figure in Sports Concussion Probe

After the Pittsburgh Steelers play in next Sunday’s Super Bowl, one of the sports world’s most important back stories will play out in Congress and the federal bureaucracy: a Federal Trade Commission investigation, initiated by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, of the safety claims of Riddell helmets, the official supplier of the National Football League.

To college, high school, and youth league programs, Riddell has promoted its Revolution model as promising a 31 percent reduction in the risk of concussions. The claim is based on a study at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, underwritten by the NFL and published in 2006 in the clinical research journal Neurosurgery. A co-author of the article was Dr. Joseph Maroon, a team neurologist for the Steelers, a prominent member of the league’s traumatic brain injury policy committee, and the medical director of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Maroon told The New York Times that Riddell took out of context for a lay audience the data from his academic research. In sports vernacular, the physician threw the helmet manufacturer “under the bus.”

Now Senator Udall and others need to ask more pointed questions of Maroon himself, a central figure in the national sports concussion crisis – which is not just an imminent legal headache for the NFL but also an urgent concern for the health and safety of millions of younger, amateur, much less protected and informed athletes.

The head trauma issue reached critical mass in public consciousness with the discovery by doctors of tau protein accumulations in the brains of dead performers in contact sports; pioneer researcher Dr. Bennet Omalu and others named this phenomenon “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” or CTE. The NFL’s slowness to acknowledge the reality of CTE became the focus of 2009 hearings of the House Judiciary Committee, which in turn led to the resignations of the co-chairs of the the league concussion policy committee. Most of the heat was directed at Dr. Ira Casson, who no-showed the hearings.

Another NFL policy committee casualty was its chairman until 2007, Dr. Elliot Pellman, who had brutally manipulated the commercial and scientific interests of league-funded research – in one case making last-minute revisions of an article for Neurosurgery after it was peer-reviewed but before it was published, and without even consulting co-authors. After the 2009 Judiciary Committee public grilling, the league dropped Pellman altogether from its internal committee.

Dr. Maroon, who did provide perfunctory testimony to the Judiciary Committee and remains an NFL consultant, was not the villain of the event. However, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez of California alertly pointed out that Maroon and other Pitt med center clinicians who help formulate league policy market their privately owned company’s product, a concussion-management system called imPACT, to the NFL and other sports entities worldwide.

As with the other doctors, Maroon’s independence and transparency are highly questionable. And his outside business empire is even more formidable.

That empire includes his portfolio as medical director of World Wrestling Entertainment. After the double murder/suicide of pro wrestler Chris Benoit in 2007, WWE hired Maroon to install imPACT there and to oversee other aspects of what the company calls its “wellness policy.” In this role, Maroon has either uttered or enabled a series of false or misleading public statements, including his own preposterous remark – during last year’s Connecticut U.S. Senate campaign of former WWE chief executive Linda McMahon – that “we have no talent now on steroids.”

In 2009, for an ESPN report on the CTE findings in the brain of another dead young wrestler, Andrew Martin, WWE asserted that it had never been given access to the Benoit brain studies. In fact, Maroon attended an October 2008 meeting at the West Virginia Brain Injury Research Institute at which Drs. Omalu and Julian Bailes showed Benoit specimens; another independent attendee said Maroon had “brokered” the meeting. (WWE now says that its statement meant that it challenges the “chain of custody” of Omalu’s histologic slides.)

In addition, Maroon aggressively promotes products for at least two unregulated supplement companies. If he doesn’t have an equity interest in one of them, Vinomis Labs, he does in the company that licensed research to it. Maroon’s University of Pittsburgh colleague Dr. Bryan Donohue – also WWE’s consulting cardiologist – is a company investor and officer.

The root of the investigation of sports concussions is the ecosystem of clinical research, an interdependent web of doctors, research journals  and funding, and for-profit output. All roads in that probe go through Dr. Joseph Maroon. His involvement in the Riddell helmet matter is just one of many coming government investigative offshoots. He belongs at the center of the public conversation of concussions during Super Bowl week.

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January 2011

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