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NFL, union pledge to provide medical data

UPDATED (4:57 p.m.)...

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, told a Congressional committee Wednesday that they will share medical information with the committee to aid its inquiry into the rate and severity of brain injuries being suffered by players.

Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked during a hearing Wednesday for the league and union to share the data.

Goodell said "absolutely yes" and Smith also agreed.

"We want to make sure our game is safe, and we're doing everything we possibly can for our players now," Goodell told Conyers and other committee members, adding that the league has made significant rule changes and is educating players about the possible effects of concussions.

Conyers asked Goodell if there is a link between playing in the NFL and suffering a significant brain injury. Goodell said that medical experts could answer the question better than he could.

Conyers then asked the same question of neurosurgeon Robert Cantu.

"I think there's cause and effect [but] it's not unique to the NFL," Cantu said.

Smith said during a break in the hearing that he believes "there is a significant amount of medical literature" suggesting there is a link between multiple concussions and the early onset of brain disease.

Several lawmakers said during the hearing they don't believe that legislative action on the issue is warranted. Few criticized the NFL directly. But Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) questioned Goodell sharply about what the league is doing for retired players. She said the league has "not taken seriously your responsibility to players" and urged Congress to consider repealing the sport's exemption from federal antitrust laws.

Rep. Anthony D. Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) questioned the NFL for allegedly being dismissive of outside research into a possible link between concussions and brain disease later in life, and for the absence of neurologist Ira Casson, a member of the league's concussion committee who has been publicly skeptical of some of the research done on the subject, from Wednesday's hearing.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said that Congress should act in a cooperative manner, not a punitive manner, to protect the sport and those who play it. Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) said: "I think what we have is an epidemic."

Goodell said earlier in the hearing that he couldn't think of any other issue on which he'd spent more time as commissioner than the health and welfare of retired players.

"We know that concussions are a serious matter and they require special attention and treatment," Goodell said. "... We are changing the culture of our game for the better."

Goodell said he'd met recently with Cantu and afterward appointed former coach and broadcaster John Madden to head a committee to study concussions and other health issues.

"Our goal is to make our game as safe as possible for those who play it," Goodell said.

Smith hailed Wednesday's hearing as a significant development.

"My number one priority is to protect those who play and have played this game," Smith said. "... This committee and this hearing will be a turning point on this issue. My hope is that this day will serve as a marker denoting the day that we are committing ourselves to finding the right answer."

Smith said he concedes that the union has made previous mistakes in dealing with the issue.

"I acknowledge that the players' union in the past has not done its best in this area," Smith said. "We will do better.... The players will not bargain for medical care. We will not bargain for health and safety. We will not bargain for basic provisions of the law as patients. We will continue to work with the league, but medical care is not and will not ever be just a collective bargaining issue. While all players understand that professional football is a violent game, we must do our best to keep them informed of the game's potential consequences."

Former New York Giants defensive lineman George Martin, recently elected the executive director of a group, NFL Alumni, that represents retired players, told committee members of a former teammate who "has been reduced to a mere shell of his former self" over the past two years and "is now confined to self-imposed house arrest and with each passing day slips further and further away from the dynamic personality that we all once knew."

Cantu called the matter a "public health crisis." He said that although a recent study commissioned by the NFL, showing that former players reported suffering from dementia and other memory-related diseases at a higher rate than the general public, was "highly flawed," it served a significant purpose.

"Even though it is flawed, it has had a positive effect of increasing public awareness of this important issue," Cantu said. "... We have a serious public health problem today resulting from repetitive head trauma too often experienced by NFL players. 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."

Cantu said that the sport needs to be changed.

"Blows to the head need to be minimized through rule and technique changes," Cantu said.

David Weir, the lead author of the NFL-commissioned study, told committee members that "we can't draw a conclusion, and no responsible scientist would do so."

A followup study is to be conducted, Weir said.

"We will not delay," Weir said, "but getting it right is more important than getting it fast."

Gay Culverhouse, the daughter of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, had some of the sharpest comments during the hearing. She said that team doctors in the NFL are hired by the team, and are not advocates for players' health.

"He is not an independent advocate for the player," Culverhouse said. "... We've got to stop that.... Something has to be done about this medical care. You cannot leave it in the hands of the team physician to make these decisions."

Culverhouse said "it has not changed" in the years since she and her father were involved in the sport. She mentioned her 9-year-old grandson and said: "We need an independent doctor on the sidelines to tell my grandson no."

Baltimore Ravens team physician Andrew Tucker, a member of NFL's committee on mild traumatic brain injury, said he didn't think it was wise to indict the current medical care given to players based on what occurred a decade or more ago. Team physicians need accurate information from players to make a proper concussion diagnosis, Tucker said, adding that players sometimes are reluctant to provide such information but that situation is improving over time.

Tucker called the findings in the NFL-commissioned study of former players "valuable, concerning and not yet definitive."

Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge, who retired after a series of concussions that he said nearly killed him, said that "what happened to me would not happen in the National Football League today. [But] we are not there. We are on our way."

Hoge said he coaches youth football and asked the lawmakers for help in establishing a national standard for the care of concussions suffered by players. Hoge said the national standards for players at all levels of the sport should include having a neurological doctor always be part of the evaluation of head trauma in a player. A player should not be allowed to return to playing until there are no symptoms for a week during exertion, Hoge said.

The sport shouldn't be eliminated, Hoge said, but standards should be established at all levels and coaches and players should be properly educated on the subject.

"I'm asking you to help us with that," Hoge said, adding that he'd met with Goodell and Smith and both had been supportive on the topic.

Several medical experts testified before the committee there is compelling evidence of a link between brain injuries suffered by players and memory-related disease later in life. Some contended the link has been firmly established.

Dick Benson, a high school football safety advocate whose son died in 2002 after collapsing in a high school football game in Texas weeks after a helmet-to-helmet hit in another game, urged committee members to take action.

"Who speaks for the 2 million young people?... I think you should make some rules because you can," Benson said.

Eleanor Perfetto, the wife of former NFL offensive lineman Ralph Wenzel, told the committee that her husband suffers from dementia and lives in an assisted living facility. She told committee members that "the NFL must stop its denial of the relationship between brain trauma and brain disease. The evidence is there." She said the NFL "must do more to protect current players and children so they are not faced with this travesty later in life."

At the outset of the hearing, Conyers said: "These injuries are not the types of risks most players or their families would ordinarily associate with the game of football.... My 13-year-old son plays a game at 4:30... today.... The questions before us are several: How serious is the problem? What can we do about it? And where do we go from here?"

Conyers said that the NFL "has largely sought to discredit these reports" about concussions in players being linked to longterm brain injuries.

"We need an expeditious independent review of all the data," Conyers said.

He asked the NCAA and high schools, in addition to the NFL and the players' union, to provide medical data on the issue.

"When it comes to public health issues, such as the causes of longterm brain diseases, I do not believe it is adequate for the league or the Players Association to hide behind the collective bargaining agreement," Conyers said. "Surely in an $8 billion-a-year industry, we can find it within the budget to make sure the players are adequately protected and that any victims of longterm brain diseases are fully and fairly compensated.

"The serious issues presented by today's hearing involve matters of life and death. 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."

Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), the committee's ranking Republican member, said during the hearing: "While we need to take this issue seriously, we should not jump to any conclusions. As the lead author of the Michigan study has stated, 'The study did not conclude that football causes dementia.'... The NFL should continue to study the longterm potential effects of head injuries on player health. The league should also study whether equipment improvements or stricter rules enforcement could help to reduce any longterm impacts of head injuries. And of course, college and high school officials should do the same.

"But Congress should not attempt to influence the upcoming collective bargaining process the NFL and its players' union are about to undertake. We should also avoid the temptation to legislate in this area. Football--like soccer, rugby and even basketball and baseball--involves contact that can produce injuries. We cannot legislate the elimination of injuries from the games without eliminating the games themselves."

A 37-page study commissioned by the NFL was conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and its findings were based on a telephone survey of 1,063 retired NFL players conducted last November and December.

Researchers found that 6.1 percent of retired NFL players age 50 and above reported receiving a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer's disease or other memory-related disease, compared to 1.2 percent for all comparably aged U.S. men, and 1.9 percent of players ages 30 to 49 indicated they'd received such a diagnosis, compared to 0.1 percent for the general population.

The researchers wrote in the study that assessing rates of dementia through a phone survey can be problematic.

"We did not administer cognitive tests and did not conduct neurological examinations," the researchers wrote. "The only information we collected about dementia was to ask the respondent (or proxy) if they had ever been diagnosed with 'dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or other memory-related disease.'... The vague category of memory-related disease makes the interpretation of this question somewhat difficult."

The researchers concluded that "further research on this issue is warranted."

By Mark Maske  |  October 28, 2009; 12:34 PM ET  | Category:  League , Union Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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Football is like coal mining.
Nobody ever said it was a safe job.
These guys choose to use their bodies instead of their brains to earn a living. What an embarrassment that congress wastes their time and our money on something like this when our country has problems much bigger and affecting many more people.
You want to cut down on head injuries? Take off the facemasks and those guys will stop leading with their head after a few missing teeth, broken noses and jaws and orbitals.

Posted by: Fredneck2 | October 28, 2009 7:42 PM

I think this is a very serious workplace issue, which yes, is the domain of congress. If there was another multi-billion dollar industry, where workers reported resultant brain damage at a rate of 6%, the public would demand that congress get involved. It is our responsibility to have a public debate, and hopefully implement work safety standards for these players.

Posted by: stephl6 | October 28, 2009 7:26 PM

Each NFL Team should be required by federal law to insure every player for his lifetime with a specially formulated full coverage FOOTBALL policy for the players lifetime.
With all the money they make and the size of the contracts handed out this can surely be done and shoud well be.

Posted by: jrickperryjr | October 28, 2009 5:49 PM

Congress is a joke. They just need to do their job!! They can go home a debate sports with their family and friends on their own time.

Posted by: RobMc1 | October 28, 2009 5:45 PM

Are you kidding me? Congress should focus on issues that we pay them to solve. If there are not enough of those, then we need less Congressmen. The benefits of being in professional sports comes at a price which that industry should bear. Stop wasting my money!

Posted by: stonewalljkrantz | October 28, 2009 5:07 PM

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