Punch Drunk Wonderland

Is the NFL Changing their Denial Stance on Football and Brain Damage?

Today a number of NFL executives and employees were testifying in Washington in a hearing by the House Committee on Energy & Commerce. The topic at hand was concussions and brain injury as a result of playing football, and the special focus was to determine if football really does lead to brain damage and, if so, take the necessary steps to immediately limit the risk to young athletes. It’s an old topic, and an old fight for the NFL. They’ve been mired in legal battles and have been trying to hush experts in the medical field for years on the topic. Even while settling million dollar lawsuits with former players the league has managed to stick with its denial stance on whether football can really lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Today something changed.

The NFL’s executive vice president for health and safety, Jeff Miller, was asked if football was a determining factor that could cause or lead to CTE. In a somewhat surprising twist, he said it did…

“Well certainly Dr. McKee’s research shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE, so the answer to that question is certainly yes.”

Miller is referring to the research conducted by Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee. McKee has been long involved in the research of former football players’ brains in order to determine if there is a link between playing the sport and CTE. In fact, her research found CTE apparent in 90 of 94 brains of former pro football players and 45 of 55 former college players studied. Dr. McKee has long been involved with this battle and has seen a wide range of reaction from the NFL from blackballing, to seeming cooperation, and to shunning again. (See Long-term Consequences of Repetitive Brain Trauma: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)

Back to Miller’s statement. While seeming like a simple statement of the obvious—this affirmation really is just acknowledging what everyone else has been saying for years—this marks a definitive change in rhetoric coming directly from an NFL executive. No league representative has stated with any clarity that playing football could lead to CTE. They often diverted the question or turned other questions back on the researcher’s doing studies that suggested the ties. Obviously, they have fought hard to avoid any potential liability.

Junior Seau 1969-2013 CTE

Junior Seau committed suicide in 2013. He shot himself in the chest in order to preserve his brain for CTE research.

This is likely coming as a new PR initiative for the league. On the heels of the recent Concussion movie, the 2013 Frontline documentary, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, and the mounting lawsuits, this is likely the first step in many to paint a new picture of the NFL and its stance on brain injury. The NFL could very likely start to spin the narrative in a different way and point to their new protocols and “all the good” they’re doing in trying to make the game safer for future generations. That, of course, would be a big change from past action and inaction.

To their credit, the league has enacted a number of protocols and policies concerning how potential concussions suffered on field are handled. On one hand these new steps are legitimate because they don’t want to see the worst happen on the field and they certainly don’t want the game to suffer if it is viewed overly dangerous. On the other hand, their slowness to take real steps and accept the research at hand has really shown that image and money are the real driving force behind any new safety measures taken by the league. They are trying to mitigate damage in lawsuits and they are trying to avoid parents getting the idea that football isn’t a safe sport for their children (P.S. It’s probably not).

That said, this new affirmation coming from the league and potential new stance is an interesting one. Genuine or no, acknowledging a potential link between football and CTE and potentially taking new measures to fund and continue research can do nothing but good things for the cause when it comes to protecting current and future players. The question will be what good it does for the NFL…


K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...