Did the NFL Really Admit a Link Between Football and TBI-Related Conditions Like CTE?

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While some may still claim that baseball is America’s pastime, it is clear that in recent decades the country has embraced football, at all levels, as America’s game. There are few things as exciting or gripping as watching players test their skill, strength, and determination on the gridiron and millions of Americans enjoy the sport as participants and spectators. However, in today’s world where our medical knowledge and understanding of the causes behind conditions is constantly expanding, there are serious questions about the role contact sports like football play in the development of serious, debilitating brain injuries like TBIs and degenerative conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Until recently, the NFL had never admitted that there was any potential link between participation in football and the development of CTE. In fact, as recently as the Super Bowl, NFL-linked doctors denied the claims. However, recent statements by an NFL executive before Congress seems to make this elusive link. However, the NFL and counsel for the NFL have seemingly backtracked from this statement.

NFL Doctor Makes Statement Disclaiming Football and CTE Link at Super Bowl

Back in February 2016 in the run-up to the most recent Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall compared the risks of playing football to not being out of the step with norms stating that, “there’re risks in life, there’re risks to sitting on a couch.” Additionally, a respected NFL-associated doctor who sits on the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine committee, Dr. Berger, seemed to state to a Toronto Star Reporter that no link between football and CTE existed. The doctor stated, ““There’s no question that you can find degenerative changes that are indicative of CTE in individuals who have played football . . . (but) I think tau 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.”

NFL Executive Seems to Indicate Football-CTE Link Exists in Congressional Testimony

During a Congressional roundtable where NFL exec Jeff Miller as interviewed, a shocking apparent disclosure was made by the executive. At one point during the interview, Miller was questioned by Representative Jan Schakowsky about whether the link between playing football and developing CTE existed. Miller stated, “The answer to that question is certainly, yes.”

Miller said that he based this assessment on the evidence he reviewed that was largely provided by Dr. McKee. Dr. McKee is one of the foremost medical experts on the development of degenerative brain diseases. She has studied the brains of 176 deceased individuals who were suspected of having CTE. 90 of these individuals were former NFL players many of the remaining individuals were former football players at the collegiate or high school levels. Of the 94 brains studied donated by deceased former NFL players, 90 had the hallmark tau-protein signs of CTE. 55 of the brains studied were donated by deceased former college players and 45 had signs of degenerative changes of CTE. Of the 26 brains donated by deceased former high school players, only six showed evidence of CTE.

Is the NFL’s “Admission” As Groundbreaking as Some Claim?

The fact of the matter is that this admission is hardly as groundbreaking as some commentators have implied or stated. In fact, the first admission regarding the risk of football came roughly six years ago to the New York Times when an NFL spokesperson said, “quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.” Thus, this is far from the NFL’s first acknowledgment of the problems associated with concussive impacts to the skull.

Furthermore, it isn’t even clear what the language Miller used meant. Was he talking about a link in a clinical sense? Or, was he more likely speaking in common language and stating what the NFL had already admitted back in 2009: concussions can have long-term impacts on the brain.

However, lawyers involved in the NFL settlement have already seized on these statements and are urging a court to throw the settlement out in light of these remarks. For their part, lawyers from the NFL indicate that Miller’s position is consistent with the NFL’s position throughout the trial and in public.

Thus, it appears that this isn’t quite the groundbreaking claim that some have attempted to make it out to be. However, we can take common-sense steps to minimize the consequences impacts to the head can have in pop warner and high school football. In fact, youth leagues would be wise to consider minimizing head-to-head contact and other aspects of the sport that can damage a still developing brain.

After all, NFL players in the modern game are well-compensated and are able to understand the risks, youth players and others who suffer a traumatic brain injury through an accident or injury do not have the same opportunities.

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