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NFL to launch new $100 million concussion initiatives to improve player safety

Roger Goodell says NFL’s new concussion initiative “builds on what we’ve done.” (Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press)
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The NFL is launching a new set of concussion-related initiatives under which the league will devote $60 million to technological development, aimed in part at improving helmets for players, and an additional $40 million toward funding medical research into the effects of head injuries, Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

Goodell said in an interview that the $100 million initiative “builds on what we’ve done the last few years but it takes it to another level in a variety of areas. … It’s all about protecting our players. … We’ve seen some very positive things. But we’re not satisfied. We’re not comfortable. There are still things for us to do to make our game safer for our players and make it better for our players, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”

The development comes at a time when the sport and its leaders have remained under intense scrutiny for their handling of head injuries suffered by players. Just in recent days, many observers have questioned the decision not to have Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the league’s reigning most valuable player, undergo concussion testing during the NFL’s season-opening game last Thursday night in Denver after he absorbed a series of helmet-to-helmet hits by Broncos defenders, only one of which was penalized by the game officials.

In an open letter explaining what the league is calling its “Play Smart. Play Safe” measures, Goodell said the NFL intends to do a better communications job going forward with its concussion-related efforts.

Roger Goodell says discipline by NFL coming after officials missed ‘at least one’ Broncos’ illegal hit on Cam Newton

“All of this is important work,” Goodell wrote. “But we recognize it hasn’t always been clear how connected these initiatives are to player health and safety. Moving forward, we will do a better job explaining all of these changes and the reasons behind them to our players and our fans.”

Goodell acknowledged in the letter that the public might be skeptical about the NFL’s efforts related to head injuries. The league is establishing an independent scientific advisory board of doctors, scientists  and clinicians, Goodell wrote, to identify and support proposals for research into the long-term effects of brain injuries.

“This is an example of how we will let science lead the way,” Goodell wrote. “We know there is skepticism about our work in this area. That’s why both the process and the results of our work will be shared with the medical community and the public at large.”

Owners of the 32 NFL franchises discussed and approved the new measures during this past offseason, according to league officials.

Goodell said in the interview that the league is hopeful its technological funding will produce safer helmets for players in the coming years.

“What we see are materials and technology that we didn’t have before that disperse the forces in a way that can be very beneficial,” he said. “And that’s what we want to do is try to get the experts, the engineering experts and scientific experts, to look and say: How do we take technologies that may be in the automobile business and use those technologies to design a better helmet?… We may even get to the point … where there are different [helmets for different] types of impacts at different positions. That’s something that needs to be evaluated by science and data and driven by data.”

The $40 million allotted to funding medical research over the next five years under the new initiative will be dedicated primarily to neuroscience, according to Goodell’s letter.

The NFL has reached a $1 billion settlement with former players who had sued over the effects of head injuries.

The league’s top player safety official, Jeff Miller, told a congressional committee in March that there “certainly” is a link between football and the degenerative brain disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. But others in the sport quickly disputed that, with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saying it was “absurd” to believe that a link has been firmly established between football and CTE.

From March: The NFL can’t seem to make up its mind on a link between football, CTE

In May, a report by a congressional committee accused the NFL of trying to pressure the National Institutes of Health to take a $16 million project from Boston University researcher Robert Stern. The project was to be funded from a $30 million unrestricted donation from the NFL to the NIH. Goodell defended the league’s actions then, saying its medical advisers had communicated with NIH representatives only through appropriate channels.

Goodell said in this interview he doesn’t know if the $40 million in new funding under this initiative will bring near-term clarity to the relationship between football and CTE.

“I’m not a medical expert or scientist,” Goodell said. “We have for years been funding research on CTE. We think it’s an important aspect of the research and we want to continue that, and we have. We continued our obligations with NIH for $30 million that we committed to several years ago. … So we’re going to continue to accelerate that as quickly as we can. But I think everyone would acknowledge that we’re still in the early stages of that research. We’re going to do our best to accelerate that.”

Goodell said he hopes to complete the league’s previously announced plan to hire a full-time chief medical officer by the end of this season. He also said the league continues to study potential rule changes to attempt to curb the number of concussions suffered by players.

“I think there are things we can do, not just on techniques but also where we see players that are either defenseless or in a position where they could be injured,” he said. “We think there’s some potential where we could evaluate some further rule changes.”

Goodell said the officials missed “at least one” illegal hit on Newton by the Broncos last Thursday. The NFL and NFL Players Association are investigating whether the sport’s concussion-testing procedures were applied properly to Newton. The league and union jointly monitor such compliance under an agreement reached earlier this year, and teams and individuals can be penalized for violations.

“It’s not my job to question the officials,” Newton said following the opening game. “I really like this officiating crew. It wasn’t something that I know they did intentionally. But it’s not fun getting hit in the head. We didn’t lose the game off that. I know that for a fact.”

Why didn’t anyone protect Cam Newton on Thursday night?

The new initiatives also include a pledge by the NFL to share information with other sports leagues and other interested parties, including parents of young football players.

“We’re going to be open about that,” Goodell said. “This is not easy. It’s hard. … Culture change doesn’t come overnight. Several years ago there were many who didn’t think a player would ever raise their hand and say, ‘I think I have a concussion.’ Or a teammate would say, ‘I think this individual should be evaluated.’ Or coaches would say, ‘We understand they need to be evaluated.’ They have.

“And I think everyone has understood the significance and the importance of making sure they get proper medical care promptly and by medical experts. And I think it’s working incredibly well. Is it perfect? No. Will it be perfect? I don’t know if it ever will because there’s a human element here. But I know we’ll continue to work to make it better.”