Replay: NFL official admits link between football and brain disease

posted at 8:41 am on March 15, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

Less than two months ago, one of the NFL’s top doctors denied that a link exists between football and degenerative brain disease — specifically CTE, which afflicts a growing number of retired NFL players. Yesterday, as ESPN reports, the league’s senior VP for health and safety publicly broke with that line and declared that other research showed such a link. Jeff Miller, while participating in a Congressional roundtable discussion, said the answer to the question of a link was “certainly yes”:

The NFL’s top health and safety officer acknowledged Monday there is a link between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — the first time a senior league official has conceded football’s connection to the devastating brain disease.

The admission came during a roundtable discussion on concussions convened by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, was asked by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., if the link between football and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE has been established.

“The answer to that question is certainly yes,” Miller said.

That’s odd, because the NFL’s Dr. Mitch Berger said something quite different on this past Super Bowl weekend. While acknowledging some correlation between CTE and NFL players, Berger didn’t agree that causation had been determined:

Schakowsky referred to comments made shortly before the Super Bowl by Dr. Mitch Berger, a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, that denied the existence of a clear link. At a league event on Feb. 4, Berger, who, like Nowinski, played football at Harvard, was asked by Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur if there was a link between football and degenerative brain disorders. “No,” replied Berger, according to Arthur.

“There’s no question that you can find degenerative changes that are indicative of CTE in individuals who have played football,” Berger said at the event (via the Star), “… [but] I think tau [a protein that indicates the presence of CTE] is found in brains that have traumatic injuries. Whether it’s from football, whether it’s from car accidents, gunshot wounds, domestic violence, remains to be seen.”

So who’s correct? Or did Miller let a truth out by mistake?

Nowinski attended that NFL event — uninvited — and he told Arthur that Berger’s comments were “frankly, a slap in the face to every family suffering from CTE right now.” On Monday, Nowinski said, “I can’t imagine that this [Miller’s admission] was on purpose.”

“I honestly think that Dr. McKee made such a clear answer to the question of whether there’s a link, and provided such strong evidence that, I think, Miller got caught up in it,” Nowinski told The Post, adding with a chuckle, “and, unfortunately, the truth came out of his mouth.”

The NFL has sidled up to this position in the past, but has been careful — until now, anyway — to fully admit a link between football and CTE:

In 2009, an NFL spokesman told the New York Times that it is “quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.” But when pressed by Congress and in interviews, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league representatives have for years avoided taking a position, repeating that the league would let the medical community decide. The league has never expressly linked playing football to CTE.

Miller went on to tell Schakowski and the Congressional panel that the question wasn’t really about the link itself, but what is to be done about it. “Where do we go from here with that information?” Miller asked, but didn’t provide any answers. The NFL has ponied up $100 million to do more research on concussions and treatments and has enacted stricter concussion protocols on the sidelines in order to prevent aggravating such injuries, but the question of how many concussions are too many still has not been determined. Since most of the CTE diagnoses have taken place post-mortem, no one is even sure whether the problem has been abated in recent years by the tougher regulations.

This admission will have repercussions all the way down to pee-wee leagues. If the NFL admits that football is linked to CTE, one will imagine that parents will become less enthusiastic about enrolling their sons and daughters in the kind of leagues that end up producing high-school and college athletes that end up filling NFL rosters. The impact of the admission at this point may be somewhat limited, given the publicity that CTE research has had in recent years, but it will still have some impact on recruitment in the long run. It will also have an impact on player tenure, as more athletes might consider earlier retirements in order to enjoy the money they’ve made rather than risk early dementia and death by squeezing a few more years out of a career.

The biggest question will be whether it has an impact on fan behavior. For the NFL to avoid that, it has to come to grips with CTE and on-field collisions that cause concussions without dramatically changing the game. One way to do that would be to get more assertive in calling penalties for head-leading or head-hunting hits, but loosen the restrictions on defense to allow for more aggressive play in other ways, especially on pass defense. At some point, though, the league has to follow up this admission with an answer to Miller’s question that satisfies concerns all the way from the playground to the home theater: Where do we go from here?


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