Medical experts realized long ago that there's no point in guessing how low Dr. Mehmet Oz will sink in pushing patent cures, fad diets and unproven health "miracles" on his Oprah-produced TV show. But his appearance this weekend in an NFL promotional campaign looks like some sort of a milestone.
The 30-second spot, which we viewed during Sunday's Denver-Washington game, is part of the league's "Together We Make Football" ad campaign, which aims to show how marvelously the sport is integrated into our daily lives. Dr. Oz's contribution is a story about how his son's first schoolboy tackle filled his heart with pride.
"When my son Oliver told us he wanted to play football, we were thrilled," he says on-screen. "It was a rite of passage.... The game started, and sure enough he tackled this kid. My jaw dropped and then the loudspeaker said, 'Tackle, Oliver Oz.' That I think is a memory he'll never forget. Certainly his father won't."
Dr. Oz seems to be overlooking, just a teensy bit, that the sport in general and the NFL specifically have come under fire over the health implications of playing football, especially the results of repeated concussions.
The league just settled for $765 million a lawsuit from thousands of players claiming that their careers left them with memory loss, Alzheimer's and other neurological conditions. Other cases are wending their way through the workers compensation systems of several states, including California. The league stands accused of having suppressed evidence of the medical consequences of head injuries for years.
Concern about pediatric head injuries from football and other sports is rising fast. Here's a rundown from a pediatric neurosurgeon, and here are some scary figures from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Oz is no ordinary pitchman. A successful open-heart surgeon best known as the host of a daily TV show that pulls in some 4 million daytime viewers, he may be America's most prominent medical authority. But he doesn't always put his celebrity to good use. Instead, he uses it to promote diets of the week, anti-aging nostrums and "miracle" treatments. He's given precious airtime to people like Joseph Mercola, a hawker of alternative health remedies who discourages women from getting mammograms and parents from vaccinating their children and promotes sun exposure as a health benefit (not coincidentally, selling tanning beds on his website for as much as $3,999 a pop).
Now he's delivering his audience to the NFL in a spot that portrays football as "a rite of passage" that helped his school-age son "grow up" with a head-first tackle, as he says in the ad. There's no mention from this eminent medical man that there may be a few downsides to contact football. There's no mention that schoolboys may be especially at risk, because many school systems -- perhaps most -- the quality of helmets and other equipment isn't up to the task of protecting players from what could be life-changing injuries. The NFL can't manage traumatic head injuries -- what are the chances that some rural district where parents think they've gotten the green light from Dr. Oz can do better?
Dr. Oz told us through a spokesman that he didn't receive "monetary compensation" for the spot, though the NFL made a small contribution to one of his charities and invited him to the Super Bowl. He said he agreed that "we need better helmet technology and coaching" to help kids be safe.
But he said he isn't concerned that his appearance would serve implicitly to undermine concerns about head injuries. The purpose of his participating in the ad, he said, was "to convey my love of the game of football and the role the game played in my personal ... development" and "the same value in the game as a teaching tool for our son." He said he didn't think any cautionary disclaimer was needed, since he did the ad "to raise the issue that we have risks and benefits from playing contact sports." (There's no mention of "risks" in the 30-second spot.) "We live in a society that often focuses on the risks of decisions, rather than the opportunities of engaging life fully."
Is that good enough? Oz says "a discussion of safer play and risk reduction in football is one which I fully embrace and engage." How does that comport with his NFL spiel glorifying the sport as doorway to manhood? To suggest without even the hint of a disclaimer that football is a "rite of passage" that a young boy can profit by -- and to use his own child as a case study -- is, in fact, a new low for Dr. Oz.
His remark about football creating an unforgettable memory for himself and his son vibrates with unintended irony. Just recently, NFL quarterback Brett Favre revealed that at the age of 44 he's already suffering memory loss. "I don’t remember my daughter playing soccer," he said in an interview. "For the first time in 44 years, that put a little fear in me." Is Dr. Oz listening?