Dr. Mehmet Oz is firing back at charges he's shilling for the NFL at a time when the country's richest, most powerful sports league is struggling with medical, legal and image problems from the player-concussion issue.
The host of the syndicated "Dr. Oz Show" described as "unfair" a Los Angeles Times column accusing him of "shamelessly shilling for the NFL." The column, written by Michael Hiltzik, was a response to a 30-second spot aired during football games over the weekend. Part of a campaign in which celebrities and others discuss their connection to football, Dr. Oz, a former high school and college football player, describes football as a "rite of passage" that helped his teen son Oliver "grow up." He recalls his pride when the announcer called his son's first game tackle.
Mr. Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote it was a new low for Dr. Oz to endorse the NFL without adding a "cautionary disclaimer" on the risk from traumatic head injuries. Just how blistering the column was becomes clear in the lead paragraph: "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."
That's bunk, countered Dr. Oz in an interview Tuesday night from Chicago where he spoke at a football safety clinic for the mothers of high school players hosted by the Chicago Bears and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
First, Dr. Oz said he doesn't endorse anything, period. All the products he supposedly endorses on the Web are phonies. Second, he called the NFL himself about the "opportunity to save brains" before the league asked him to appear in its year-long "Together We Make Football—Your Story" ad campaign. That campaign has also featured appearances from Condoleezza Rice, Rob Lowe, L.L. Cool J, Whoopi Goldberg, Joe Montana and child football phenomenon Samantha Gordon. Third, he didn't think it was possible to inject a "disclaimer" into a 30-second commercial. He agreed to appear, said Dr. Oz, because he "has a passion" for the game and, like many parents, had a "difficult decision" to make about allowing his son to play high school football.
"Of all the stories I could tell about football, it was one that might be most relevant to a lot of folks who are at home making the same kind of decision," he said. "But it wasn't a paid endorsement. I didn't have a reason to do it besides, quite frankly, I have an affinity for the game."
From a practical standpoint, he wants to know how he could insert a "disclaimer" into a TV spot. All the spots were shot by the league's NFL Films. "All this pent-up rage about my need to put a disclaimer in. How do you put a disclaimer in a 22-second piece about something that you like doing?"
The NFL says it has not received one complaint about Oz spot. "The next one would be the first," said spokesman Brian McCarthy.
The NFL compensated Dr. Oz and the other celebrities appearing in the campaign with a $20,000 donation to the charity of their choice and two tickets to Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, 2014 at MetLife Stadium, according to league spokeswoman Joanna Hunter.
But Dr. Oz said he was not aware of any compensation until afterwards. He's asked the NFL to give the money straight to HealthCorps, a health and fitness charity he helped found in 2003. An avid NFL fan, he frequently attends the Super Bowl. As a New Jersey resident who lives near MetLife Stadium, he's looking forward to taking his son to the first Super Bowl to be played at an outdoor stadium during cold weather months.
At the safety clinic Tuesday night, Dr. Oz spoke to the mothers of high school football payers about how to diagnose concussions, proper tackling techniques and how they can better "monitor" coaches to make sure they keep concussed kids off the field.
He said: "Moms have bigger goals than won-lost records. We want to use the Moms to make these games safer."
The proper tackling techniques are part of a raft of rule changes instituted by the league in attempt to cut down on severe head injuries. A number of the hard-hitting types of tackles that have long been the stuff of highlight reels are now forbidden, resulting in on-field penalties and off-field fines. In the NCAA, such tackles will get a defensive player ejected from the game.
PR woes for league
Just days before the start of the current 2013 season, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries with 18,000 retired players and agreed to pay for exams and underwrite medical research. The settlement came after more than 4,500 retired players sued the league, claiming the blows they received playing in the NFL caused depression, dementia and Alzheimer's. And that the league concealed the risk from playing pro football.
And earlier this month, PBS aired "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis." An investigation originally conducted by Frontline and ESPN until ESPN backed out, the film not only looked at the effects of head injuries on players but also at accusations that the NFL buried its own research, and has hand-picked doctors and experts supportive of its side while black-listing those critical of the league's practices.
But Dr. Oz thinks there's been "some piling on" the NFL over head injuries, some justified, some not. The modern football helmet, he said, was designed to prevent skull fractures, not concussions.
Rather than dividing the country into people who think football "is a bad thing or a good thing," he'd rather focus on making all sports safer. Athletes suffer concussions playing other sports such as soccer, baseball, hockey and lacrosse. His own daughter suffered a serious concussion playing basketball.
"The real decision is: Do you want to replace football with antiquing. … It may not be the solution that a lot of Americans want to go with. I think there's a middle ground."
Whatever people think of his decision to appear in the NFL commercial, Dr. Oz said he spoke from the heart.
"I credit a lot of the business I've learned in life, and the importance of teamwork, to the lessons I learned on the football field. I've always told my children that I was proud of the experiences I had and wanted them to have similar experiences in whatever sport they wanted to play."
The change in his own son after making it through freshmen football practice was "absolutely remarkable," he added.
"It was like going through Marine Corps Boot Camp. He just came back a different kid with a lot more confidence in himself and the knowledge that the only thing that could hold him back was him," Dr. Oz said. "Which is ultimately what I learned by playing myself."
Meanwhile, Dr. Oz and his legal representatives will continue to play whack-a-mole with the constant stream of fake products illegally using his name and likeness. The companies that advertise on his show such as Procter & Gamble are identified as sponsors.
"We estimate there's probably been $600 million to $700 million being made on my name with fraudulent advertisements. But it's very hard to stop because they're so well-funded and make so much money off me."