By Mark Maske
Thursday, October 29, 2009
NFL leaders told a House committee Wednesday that they will cooperate with the panel's plan to review data regarding the rate and severity of brain injuries suffered by football players, saying more research is needed to determine if there is a direct link between head injuries suffered while playing the sport and brain disease later in life.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said during the hearing that "we need an expeditious independent review of all the data," and asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, if they would share medical information with the committee.
"Absolutely yes," Goodell said, and Smith agreed.
Conyers scheduled the hearing to examine the sport's reaction in dealing with findings by some medical experts that repeated concussions and brain trauma suffered by players can produce an increased risk of dementia and other memory-related diseases later in life.
"The serious issues presented by today's hearing involve matters of life and death," Conyers said. "They go to the heart of one of our nation's most popular and profitable sports. And equally important, they affect millions of players of all ages and their families. So the sooner we can get to the bottom of these issues, the better."
Several lawmakers said they don't believe that legislative action on the issue is warranted. But differing views also were expressed. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) questioned Goodell sharply about what the league is doing for retired players. She said the league has "not taken seriously your responsibility to players" and urged Congress to consider repealing the sport's exemption from federal antitrust laws.
Goodell said the league has made significant rule changes and is educating players about the possible effects of concussions. "We want to make sure our game is safe, and we're doing everything we possibly can for our players now," he said.
Conyers asked Goodell if there is a link between playing in the NFL and suffering a significant brain injury with long-term effects. Goodell said that medical experts could answer the question better than he could.
Conyers then asked the same question of neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
"I think there's cause and effect," Cantu said, adding that the long-term health consequences of concussions suffered by athletes is "not unique to the NFL."
"The public health risk is already here and we cannot afford to wait any longer to make changes to the way we play sports," Cantu said.
Cantu said that although a recent study commissioned by the NFL, showing that former players reported suffering from dementia and other memory-related diseases at a higher rate than the general public, was "highly flawed," it served a significant purpose by "increasing public awareness of this important issue."
David Weir, the lead author of the NFL-commissioned study, told the panel that "we can't draw a conclusion, and no responsible scientist would do so." A follow-up study is to be conducted, Weir said.
Goodell said he had met recently with Cantu to discuss the issue and afterward appointed former coach and broadcaster John Madden to head a committee to study concussions and other health issues affecting football.
Smith said during a break in the hearing that he believes "there is a significant amount of medical literature" suggesting there is a link between multiple concussions and the early onset of brain disease.
Several medical experts testified before the committee that there is compelling evidence, and some contended the link has been firmly established.
Dick Benson, an advocate for high school football whose son died in 2002 after collapsing in a game in Texas weeks after a helmet-to-helmet hit in another game, urged committee members to take action.
Eleanor Perfetto, the wife of former NFL offensive lineman Ralph Wenzel, told the committee that her husband suffers from dementia and lives in an assisted living facility. "The NFL must stop its denial of the relationship between brain trauma and brain disease. The evidence is there," she said.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge, whose playing career was ended by a series of concussions, said he now coaches youth football and asked the lawmakers for their help in establishing a national standard for the care of concussions suffered by players of all ages.
Hoge said the standards should include having a neurological doctor always included in the evaluation of head trauma in a player. A player should not be allowed to return to playing until there are no symptoms during physical exertion for at least a week, Hoge said.
The sport shouldn't be eliminated, Hoge said, but such standards should be established at all levels and coaches and players should be properly educated on the subject.
"I'm asking you to help us with that," Hoge said, adding that he had met with Goodell and Smith and both had been supportive on the topic.
Gay Culverhouse, the daughter of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, had some of the sharpest comments during the hearing. She said that team doctors in the NFL are hired by the team, and are not advocates for players' health.
"We've got to stop that. . . . Something has to be done about this medical care," she said. "You cannot leave it in the hands of the team physician to make these decisions."
Baltimore Ravens team physician Andrew Tucker, a member of the NFL's committee on mild traumatic brain injury, said he didn't think it was wise to indict the current medical care given to players based on what occurred a decade or more ago. Team physicians need accurate information from players to make a proper concussion diagnosis, Tucker said, adding that players sometimes are reluctant to provide such information but that situation is improving.
Smith called the hearing a significant development. "This committee and this hearing will be a turning point on this issue," Smith said. "My hope is that this day will serve as a marker denoting the day that we are committing ourselves to finding the right answer. . . . I acknowledge that the players' union in the past has not done its best in this area. We will do better."