NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during a news conference at the NFL owners meeting Wednesday. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

The NFL made a seemingly straightforward admission last week when its top player safety official told a congressional committee that there is “certainly” a link between football and degenerative brain disease.

The acknowledgment earned praise from medical experts and touched off speculation about the potential ramifications for the league in court and among parents deciding whether to allow their children to play the game.

Since then, however, prominent NFL figures have been far less definitive on the subject. At least two influential team owners, including the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, said this week they aren’t certain about the relationship between football and brain disorders such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). And at a news conference Wednesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell did not directly answer a question about whether he and the league believe such a link exists.

“I think the most important thing for us is to support the medical [experts] and scientists who determine what those connections are,” Goodell said.

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, said on March 14, when asked if there is a link between football and CTE: “The answer to that is certainly, yes.” (David J. Phillip/AP)

The lack of clarity on the issue points to a league still struggling to figure out how to deal with a complex subject that eventually could threaten its very survival. By acknowledging a link between football and CTE, legal experts say, the NFL could undermine its position in court, where a proposed settlement between the league and retired players is under appeal, and potentially create an open-ended liability with current and future players.

“I am not sure how we can react to their comments other than to simply shrug our shoulders and point,” said George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association. “We know we have to work with them, and it is important to have a level of professional decorum because we have to get things done, but it is hard when they say the things they say with a straight face.”

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, made his attention-grabbing comment March 14 during a roundtable discussion on concussions before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He was asked by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) about a link between football and CTE and replied that “the answer to that is certainly yes.”

It marked the first time a senior league official said a link existed, and the NFL issued a statement the following day saying Miller had not misspoken. “The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL,” it said.

League leaders were criticized as recently as at the Super Bowl last month for refusing to acknowledge a link between the sport and brain disease, which made Miller’s comments that much more noteworthy, even apparently among some NFL team owners. “It took us by surprise,” one owner said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some team owners, who were gathered here this week for the league’s annual meeting, went even further when questioned about whether they believe a relationship between football and CTE has been firmly established.

At least two NFL owners, including Dallas’s Jerry Jones, said this week they aren’t certain about the relationship between football and brain disorders such as CTE. (Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

“No, that’s absurd,” said Jones, the Cowboys’ owner. “There’s no data that in any way creates a knowledge. There’s no way that you could have made a comment that there is an association and some type of assertion. In most things, you have to back it up by studies. And in this particular case, we all know how medicine is. Medicine is evolving.”

Jones added: “We have millions of people that have played this game, have millions of people that are at various ages right now that have no issues at all. None at all. So that’s where we are. That didn’t alter at all what we’re doing about it. We’re going to do everything we can to understand it better and make it safer.”

Jones’s remarks were echoed by Robert McNair, owner of the Houston Texans. “We don’t know does CTE exist among people who’ve never had any contact? We don’t know. Because when you’re alive they can’t check for it,” McNair said, according to ESPN.com. “The only players, the brains that have been checked, were ones who clearly were having problems. So it wasn’t a scientific sample that they were dealing with. We’ve got thousands of players who are not suffering from dementia of any type. So we have a lot to learn yet.”

Chris Nowinski, a co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said Wednesday the owners’ remarks were “woefully ill-informed” given the overwhelming scientific and medical research that has established a link between brain trauma and CTE.

“When the world’s top neuropathologists are on record saying they have never seen CTE in a brain donor who wasn’t exposed to repetitive brain trauma, and the Mayo Clinic just published a paper that found zero cases of CTE in 188 controls, but 21 cases of CTE among 66 contact sport athletes, Bob McNair sounds foolish,” Nowinski said in an email.

At his news conference, Goodell played down the significance of Miller’s acknowledgment of a link, saying it was “consistent with our position over the years.”

That was the same position taken by NFL attorney Paul Clement, who wrote a letter last week to the appeals court considering objections to the potential $1 billion concussion settlement in which he said that Miller’s admission “is consistent with NFL positions in court and otherwise.”

Lawyers for some players involved in the lawsuit against the NFL, however, contend that the admission buttresses their argument that the league’s proposed settlement with retired players be extended to include future cases of CTE. Some outside legal experts agree.

Arthur R. Miller, a professor at the New York University law school and director of the school’s Tisch Institute for sports management, media and business, said last week that the NFL’s CTE acknowledgment carried legal risk.

“Although there is a settlement, the settlement might not be approved by the appellate court,” he said. “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 NFL’s annual revenues are estimated to be in excess of $13 billion; the league has set a goal of $25 billion in revenues by 2027. Future costs of concussion-related litigation are among the chief issues facing the sport going forward, sports business experts have said.