Cliff Avfril (56) of the Seattle Seahawks is down with a concussion during Super Bowl XLIX in 2015. (AP Photo/Kevin Terrell)

NFL Acknowledges a Link Between Football, CTE

March 15, 2016
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

After years of skepticism, professed doubts and at times outright denial, the NFL has acknowledged a link between playing football and the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The acknowledgment came one day after Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, told the House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce, that football-related head trauma can lead to brain disease. Asked by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, (D-Ill.), whether “there is a link between football and degenerative brain diseases like CTE,” Miller responded, “The answer to that is certainly, yes.” He added, however, that “there’s also a number of questions that come with that,” noting a lack of data about the prevalence of CTE.

“The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL,” a league spokesman said in a statement to FRONTLINE on Tuesday.

In his comments before the panel, Miller said his assessment was based on the research of Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University who has diagnosed CTE in 90 out of the former 94 NFL players she’s examined. In September, McKee told FRONTLINE that despite such findings, “convincing people this is an actual disease” was her biggest challenge. In all, she and her colleagues at BU and the Department of Veterans Affairs have found CTE in 176 people, including 45 college football players and six high school football players.

Miller’s admission broke with the NFL’s past stances on the issue. In a series of scientific papers published between 2003 and 2009, members of the league’s since disbanded “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee” wrote that “no NFL player” had ever suffered chronic brain damage as a result of repeat concussions. “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis,” they wrote in one 2005 paper.

In 2009, a league spokesman told The New York Times it was “quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.”

But the league has walked that position back in recent years. As recently as Super Bowl week, Dr. Mitch Berger, the neurosurgeon who leads the NFL’s subcommittee on long-term brain injury, said there was still no direct link between football and CTE. That assertion came after a season in which NFL players sustained at least 271 concussions, a 31.6 percent increase over the year before.

Within hours of Miller’s comments, an attorney for seven retired players who are objecting to a proposed settlement between the NFL and the roughly 5,000 former players now suing the league over head injuries, sent a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is considering their appeal. Under the settlement, the NFL has agreed to pay damages to families of those found to have suffered from CTE between 2006 and last April, when the settlement won approval from a district court judge.

The objectors argue that the NFL should be responsible for compensating players who are diagnosed with CTE in the future. In a letter to the court, their attorney, Steven Molo, called Miller’s comments “a stark turn” from the league’s previous position in court.

“The NFL’s statements make clear that the NFL now accepts what science already knows: a ‘direct link’ exists between traumatic brain injury and CTE. Given that, the settlement’s failure to compensate present and future CTE is inexcusable.”

In a separate statement released Tuesday, Christopher Seeger, an attorney for the remaining players in the lawsuit, said his clients “welcome the NFL’s acknowledgment.” He added, however, that “the scientific study into CTE is in its infancy and a reliable method for detecting it in living people does not exist. Therefore, the settlement provides compensation and care for those who exhibit neurocognitive symptoms associated with CTE — dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS — importantly without having to prove the cause or link to CTE.” 

Over the last few years, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly said it will be up to the medical community to decide whether a link exists between tackle football and CTE. To date, the NFL has donated more than $100 million toward the study of player health.

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