On Monday, an NFL official finally truly acknowledged what the families of Junior Seau and Mike Webster and Frank Gifford and Ken Stabler and many, many other football players have long known: There is a link between playing the game and degenerative brain disease.
With that out in the open for the first time, the question now becomes: What changes going forward?
The admission took all of two words. It came when Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, was asked by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in a Capitol Hill round-table discussion whether there was a link between football and diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“The answer to that is certainly, yes,” Miller responded.
Years of kicking the issue down the road by the NFL, which Schakowsky said has had “a very troubling track record of denying and discrediting scientific inquiry into the risks of playing football,” appeared to have ended with those words. But it’s never that simple with an issue that threatens a multi-billion-dollar industry.
No sooner did Miller speak than the NFL issued a statement, saying that he was referring to research by Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee, a top concussion expert. “He was discussing Dr. McKee’s findings and made the additional point that a lot more questions need to be answered,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement emailed to The Post. “He said that experts should speak to the state of the science.”
That has long been the NFL’s position. It has argued, as the link between repeated hits and later cognitive issues became increasingly apparent, that it was best to let the medical community determine whether there was a relationship between playing the game and CTE.
As it waited “to let the science go where the science goes,” as McCarthy put it Monday night, big-name players were, one after the other, found to have had the disease in the only way presently possible, during autopsy. The news about Hall of Famer Ken Stabler was revealed during Super Bowl week and we’ve reached the point at which a former football player who does not have CTE is more surprising than not. Boston University researchers found evidence of CTE in the brains of 90 of 94 former NFL players.
But what happens now? Does an admission by Miller really change anything? Was it an over-reach that the league can downplay? Long-term, the game will evolve. Already, the NFL stresses that there is greater emphasis, for instance, on teaching kids safe tackling techniques and doing less tackling during practices even as more and more parents consider whether to let their kids play the sport.
Much may have changed, but the NFL isn’t entirely on board as it seeks to protect its business and, of course, it can be petty. Last December, the league backed out of an ambitious study aimed at finding a way to diagnose CTE in living patients, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” reported. “The seven-year, $16 million initiative was to be funded out of a $30 million research grant the NFL gave the National Institutes of Health in 2012,” Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada wrote. “The NFL has said repeatedly that it has no control over how that money is spent, but the league balked at this study, sources said, because the NIH awarded the project to a group led by Dr. Robert Stern, a prominent Boston University researcher who has been critical of the league.”
The NFL announced in 2012 that it would give the NIH $30 million “with no strings attached,” but an NIH official told “OTL” two years later that the NFL had veto power over projects.
Against that backdrop, Miller’s comment was significant. It was so significant, in fact, that the NFL initially distanced itself from it, then sought to regain its footing Tuesday afternoon with a statement emailed to Maske in which McCarthy said, “The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL.”
Miller’s comment had an almost immediate impact Tuesday morning in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is hearing the appeal of the settlement between thousands of retired NFL players and the league. At issue is whether players found with CTE in the future should also be paid. As a result, lawyers pounced Miller’s comments. In a letter to the court, the New York Times reports that the players’ lawyer, Steven Molo, wrote:
“The NFL’s statements make clear that the NFL now accepts what science already knows: a ‘direct link’ exists between traumatic brain injury and CTE. Given that, the settlement’s failure to compensate present and future CTE is inexcusable.”
With two little words — “certainly, yes” — the story of CTE and the NFL may have begun to change.