The NFL is standing by the acknowledgement on Capitol Hill by its top player safety official of a link between football and degenerative brain disease.
“The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a written statement provided Tuesday to The Washington Post.
Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, was asked during a round-table discussion Monday by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) whether there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Miller said that “the answer to that is certainly, yes.”
It was believed to be the first public acknowledgement by the NFL of such a link. League leaders previously said they would leave it to researchers and medical experts to determine whether such a link exists.
Miller cited the work of Ann McKee and other researchers at Boston University who have found the disease when examining the brains of deceased NFL players. Miller said he would defer to medical experts on questions about the prevalence of the disease among players.
“I’m very pleased that they did it,” Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University and co-director of BU’s CTE Center, said in a phone interview Tuesday of the NFL’s acknowledgement.
“All the signs at BU and around the world have connected this. We’re connecting the dots. … I think it’s very positive that the NFL has stepped forward. I look forward to other sports stepping forward as well.”
Cantu is a senior adviser to the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee and a section co-chair of the NFL Players Association’s traumatic brain injury committee.
“I think football has taken the lead and that’s great,” Cantu said. “Football has also taken the lead in terms of reducing the amount of head contact allowed in practices and so forth. I would have preferred to see this happen earlier but I’m pleased that it did happen. It’s an acknowledgement of what a number of us felt the science proved a number of years ago. The NFL promised it would go where the science leads. They’ve become the first major sport to do so.”
Schakowsky and three other Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote Tuesday to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking what further steps the league plans to take. The letter was co-authored by Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, Gene Green of Texas and Diana DeGette of Colorado.
“We are encouraged by the NFL’s willingness to accept the science linking the repetitive hits inherent to football with CTE,” the letter said. “We seek to better understand whether this new attitude will translate into additional actionable measures to prevent repetitive brain trauma in current players, encourage programs and protocols to protect children in the youth leagues, and provide support for current and retired players at risk of this disease. The NFL’s leadership on this issue can serve as a guide to other professional sports leagues and youth sports organizations seeking to limit risks for their players.”
The NFL’s acknowledgement raises questions about potential future legal liability and about participation rates in youth tackle football going forward, experts said.
The league’s settlement with a group of former players who sued over concussion-related issues is before a federal appeals court.
“Although there is a settlement, the settlement might not be approved by the appellate court,” said Arthur R. Miller, a university professor at the New York University law school and director of the school’s Tisch Institute for sports management, media and business.
“It could conceivably hurt them in this litigation or in future litigation. Additionally, it changes the dynamics of the next labor negotiation with the NFL Players Association. It becomes a labor-management issue.”
The appeals court is considering objections by groups of players to the class-action concussion settlement, and an attorney for an objecting group wrote to the court about Miller’s acknowledgement. Christopher Seeger, co-lead counsel for the player class plaintiffs, said in a written statement Tuesday that the objections to the settlement “are without merit” and the settlement, in his view, should be approved.
“We welcome the NFL’s acknowledgement of what was alleged in our complaint: that reports have associated football with findings of CTE in deceased former players,” Seeger said. “Retired NFL players brought this case to obtain security and care for the devastating brain injuries they were experiencing at a rate much greater than the general population. The settlement achieves that, providing immediate care to the sickest retired players and long-term security over the next 65 years for those who are healthy now but develop a qualifying condition in the future.
“However, as the district court correctly held, the scientific study into CTE is in its infancy and a reliable method for detecting it in living people does not exist. Therefore, the settlement provides compensation and care for those who exhibit neurocognitive symptoms associated with CTE–dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS–importantly without having to prove the cause or link to CTE.”
The NFL filed a letter, written by attorney Paul Clement, with the appeals court late Tuesday saying that Miller’s admission on Capitol Hill “is consistent with NFL positions in court and otherwise. The NFL has previously acknowledged studies identifying a potential association between CTE and certain football players, including Dr. [Ann] McKee’s work, to which the NFL has contributed funding.”
Clement also wrote in the NFL’s filing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit: “Simply put, Mr. Miller’s remarks have no bearing on the pending appeal.”
Cantu said that Miller’s acknowledgement is not meaningful to future research but could be meaningful to the public’s perception of the research that is done. He expressed hope that the NFL’s admission of a link between football and CTE will lead parents to reconsider allowing children to play tackle football at a young age.
“I think it will help immensely,” Cantu said. “I sure hope so. I sure hope with regard to football, the rise in participation in flag football being greater than [the most recent increase in participation] in tackle football is significant. I think to the greater extent we can replace tackle football with flag football, it’s all positive.”
Figures released Monday showed participation in flag football among 6- to 14-year-olds up 8.7 percent in 2015 over 2014, compared to a 1.9 percent increase for tackle football. Among 15- to 18-year-olds, participation in flag football was up 10.5 percent while participation in tackle football was up 2.5 percent. The figures were part of an annual Physical Activity Council participation report.
Steve Alic, a spokesman for USA Football, a national governing body for youth football that is also part of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said his organization is “continually working to improve what we offer” in promoting proper education and safety measures for tackle football at all levels.
Alic said it is “too early to tell” if the increased participation in tackle football last year over 2014 is a trend, adding that “better education and standards may translate to better participation.”