A watershed moment for the NFL's concussion awareness

By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — In the ongoing battle between the NFL, current and former players, the scientific community, and the general public on the links between American football and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), one of the biggest roadblocks has been the league’s reluctance to admit any kind of validity to the research done by scientists at places like Boston University’s CTE Center.

According to a new report by Outside the Lines’ Steve Fainaru, co-author of the bestselling exposé League of Denial, Jeff Miller, senior vice president of health and safety, admitted in a Congressional roundtable that there is “certainly” a link between football and C.T.E.

In a hearing conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) asked if a link exists between football and C.T.E., among other degenerative brain diseases. Dr. Ann McKee, Professor of Neurology and Pathology at the BU School of Medicine and one of the lead researchers at the school’s C.T.E. Center, also attended the discussion. Her work provided the basis for Miller’s ultimate assessment.

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

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Dr. McKee’s research has found evidence of C.T.E. in 90 of 94 brains of deceased NFL players examined. Another major obstacle to better understanding C.T.E. is the fact that it doesn’t show up in CT scans and cannot yet be discovered in living patients. That issue was part of Miller’s subsequent assertion that there is still not enough known about C.T.E. to make any significant connections between the disease and football.

“I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means, and where do we go from here with that information,” Miller said.

While Miller’s statements were sort of a “one foot in, one foot out” kind of comment, it’s still the first time that an NFL executive has formally admitted a connection between football and C.T.E. It’s a groundbreaking admission and potentially a watershed moment for the NFL and the movement toward greater awareness of C.T.E.

The Washington Post reached out to Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and one of the world’s leading voices on concussion awareness, who said “This day was a long time coming, and I think it will have huge implications for the future of the game.

“The NFL has spent the last decade trying to convince the world that that link wasn’t real … I think this will change the behavior of a lot of people, this will have legal implications. It’s just about damn time.”

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According to OTL, a lawyer representing seven former NFL players, who are part of a proposed settlement in the concussion lawsuit between themselves and the league, sent an appeal letter arguing that Miller’s comments represented a “stark turn” for the league in its arguments against the link between football and C.T.E.

Just last month, a week before Super Bowl 50, Dr. Mitch Berger, a member of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee, denied such a link when asked by the Toronto Star. Asked several different ways to acknowledge a link between football and chronic brain trauma, Dr. Berger refused to do so. It’s far from the first time that the league stopped short at making the connection.

Berger and Miller are certainly correct about one thing: the link between football and C.T.E. creates more questions about the links between sports and traumatic brain injury. The biggest one for the league is, why did it take so long for them to admit that a link exists?

UPDATE (03/15/2016 12:16 p.m.): The NFL has already released a statement through spokesman Brian McCarthy distancing itself from comments made by Jeff Miller about the link between football and CTE.

“We want the facts, so we can develop better solutions,” McCarthy said as part of the statement, according to to USA Today. “And that’s why we’re deeply committed to advancing medical research on head trauma, including CTE, to let the science go where the science goes. We know the answers will come as this field of study continues to advance.”


Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.