Congress probes link between football and brain damage

Fans of American football love the game especially because it brings millions together nationwide to celebrate team unity, home pride and athleticism. Yet for years many have argued there is a serious link between players who suffer repeated concussions and long-term consequences such as brain injuries.

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, faced heated questions from the House Judiciary Committee Oct. 28, with lawmakers joining former players and others in accusing the league of neglect of its responsibilities to active and retired players with brain injuries.

In his opening statement Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the committee chairman, said the issue of brain injuries in football warrants federal scrutiny because the league is a monopoly whose existence was legislatively sanctioned. Conyers was referring to the antitrust exemption for broadcasting that has helped the NFL grow into a multibillion-dollar operation.

Some on the committee, including Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., whose husband played in the NFL, said it’s time for Congress to re-examine the league’s antitrust exemption and maybe it ought to be removed entirely.

“We need an expeditious, independent review of the data,” Conyers said.

“I say this not simply because of the impact of these injuries on the 2,000 current players and more than 10,000 retirees associated with the NFL and their families,” said Conyers. “I say it because of the effect on millions of players at the college, high school and youth levels.”

Conyers asked Goodell whether he thinks there is a connection between the game and head injuries. Goodell said the NFL is taking steps to make the game safer. However he dodged the question, saying a medical expert could give a better answer than he could.

However, Dr. Ira Casson, the co-chairman of the NFL’s research committee, has been criticized for discrediting outside research and for his role in the league’s study of brain injuries in retired players. Independent experts have said his study is flawed by conflicts of interests and statistical problems.

None of the three primary authors of the NFL’s research committee, including Casson, were present during the hearing.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said the NFL has a reputation of a blanket denial or minimizing the fact that there may be a link between players and brain injuries.

“It sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-’90s when they kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s no link between smoking and damage to your health,'” said Sanchez.

Several experts told the committee there is compelling evidence of a link between brain injuries suffered by players and memory-related diseases later in life. The connection has been firmly established, they said.

Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told lawmakers that studies of the brains of former professional football players consistently reveal permanent damage.

“We have a serious public health problem today resulting from repetitive head trauma experienced by NFL players,” Cantu said. “The problem is much bigger than the NFL, however. It affects football players at all levels, including college, high school and youth leagues. And it is not just in football but in other sports.” Blows to the head need to be minimized through rule and technique changes, he said.

Cantu’s colleague Dr. Ann McKee said radical steps need to be taken in order to change the way football is played.

Family members of injured players also testified including Eleanor Perfetto, whose husband, Ralph Wenzel, a former NFL offensive lineman, is now institutionalized with dementia at age 66; and Dick Benson, whose teenage son died of a brain hemorrhage in 2002 after repeated concussions playing high school football.

“The NFL must stop its denial of the relationship between brain trauma and brain disease,” said Perfetto. “The evidence is there,” she said, and the NFL “must do more to protect current players and children so they are not faced with this travesty later in life.”

Gay Culverhouse, the daughter of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, had some of the sharpest comments. She said NFL teams are profit-hungry organizations that abuse and then abandon players who will do anything to stay on the field. Culverhouse said an independent neurologist needs to be present at every NFL game to make decisions about whether and when injured players can return to the field.

“The team doctor is hired by the coach and paid by the front office,” said Culverhouse. “The team doctor is not an advocate for the patient. If the player chooses independent medical counsel, he is considered to be not a team player.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said the issue of player safety is similar to any worker’s rights and benefits on the job. “This is a worker safety thing – no different than if someone was coming off the assembly line at a production plant and 20 years later, they all had arthritis in their right knee. We’d look at it the exact same way,” he said.

Speaker after speaker stressed the importance of making sure that the NFL is held accountable for the health and well-being of its players.

“The serious issues presented by today’s hearing involve matters of life and death,” said Conyers. “They go to the heart of one of our nation’s most popular and profitable sports. And equally important, they affect millions of players of all ages and their families. So the sooner we can get to the bottom of these issues, the better.”

Photo: Ed Yourdon Creative Commons 2.0 Generic