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In stunning admission, NFL official affirms link between football and CTE

A top official with the NFL made a stunning admission Monday, agreeing with a neuropathologist before a Congressional panel that a link exists between football-related brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The league had never before publicly acknowledged such a connection.

As first reported by Steve Fainaru of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, was speaking at a roundtable discussion on concussions convened by the House Committee on Energy & Commerce. When asked by Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.) if a connection between football and CTE had been established, Miller replied, “The answer to that question is certainly yes.”

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The news came as music to the ears of Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who co-founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and who is an unpaid adviser to an NFL Players Association committee on traumatic brain injury. When reached by phone Monday evening, Nowinski said, “This day was a long time coming, and I think it will have huge implications for the future of the game.”

“The NFL has spent the last decade trying to convince the world that that link wasn’t real,” Nowinski said. “And a lot of people have based a lot of decisions, whether to sign their child up or whether to ignore their concussions, based on a certain trust with the NFL.

“And I think this will change the behavior of a lot of people, this will have legal implications. It’s just about damn time.”

Miller’s admission followed comments by Dr. Anne McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University who focuses on neurodegenerative diseases. “I unequivocally think there’s a link between playing football and CTE,” she told the panel Monday (via ESPN).

“We’ve seen it in 90 out of 94 NFL players whose brains we’ve examined, we’ve found it in 45 out of 55 college players and 26 out of 65 high school players,” McKee continued. “No, I don’t think this represents how common this disease is in the living population, but the fact that over five years I’ve been able to accumulate this number of cases in football players, it cannot be rare. In fact, I think we are going to be surprised at how common it is.”

After agreeing with McKee’s assertion, Miller added, “But there’s also a number of questions that come with that.” When pressed by Schakowsky for an “unequivocal answer,” Miller replied, “You asked the question whether I thought there was a link, and certainly based on Dr. McKee’s research there’s a link, because she’s found CTE in a number of retired football players. I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means and where do we go from here with that information.”

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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.”

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.”

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According to ESPN, Miller left the roundtable session without expanding on his remarks to reporters. In the past, NFL officials have spoken more vaguely on the topic, including in 2009, when league spokesman Greg Aiello told the New York Times, “It’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems,” and in 2012, when Commissioner Roger Goodell told Time, “It doesn’t take a lot to jump to the conclusion that constant banging in the head is not going to be in your best interest.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy offered these comments via email to The Washington Post on Monday evening:

“[Miller] was discussing Dr McKee’s findings and made the additional point that a lot more questions need to be answered.
“He said that the experts should speak to the state of the science.
“We want the facts, so we can develop better solutions. And that’s why we’re deeply committed to advancing medical research on head trauma, including CTE, to let the science go where the science goes. We know the answers will come as this field of study continues to advance.”

To Nowinski, who describes his foundation as an independent non-profit that collaborates with Boston U., where McKee does her research (“We’re not the scientists,” he said), the biggest impact of the NFL’s denials of the football-CTE link has not even been on its own players. “The dramatic mistake they’ve made is pouring money into recruiting children to play the game,” he said.

The 37-year-old Massachusetts native wants to see kids only begin playing tackle football in high school, likening it to young people not being allowed to drive cars until they reach the age of 16. The more years people play tackle football and expose themselves to concussive impacts, he asserted, the greater their risk of developing CTE or other neurodegenerative diseases.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter so much what happens to players at football’s highest level, where, Nowinski noted, “the NFL, through prompting from the NFL Players Association, has made the game safer for the grown men who participate.” He said, “What matters far more is how many years children are playing before they get there,” particularly as so few of them will actually reach the NFL.

We can all agree that we are a long way from the end of youth football leagues, whether that would come from an NFL change of course or any other mechanism. However, Nowinski and others concerned about what they see as a clear link between football and brain diseases are delighted that an NFL official has finally agreed that such a link exists.