Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 23
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

League struggles for clarity on player safety

Owners say ‘we don’t know enough.’ Giants’ Mara: ‘No one is in denial.’

NFL owners left this year’s annual meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., with sharp and sometimes conflicting comments as they tried to regain the offensive against the player health and safety issues that continue to hang over the league.

Almost universally heard, though, was a sense of frustration from owners that the extensive efforts the league has taken to care for players both present and past was being overshadowed by the spotlight on still-developing research efforts.

Asked last week about comments by the NFL’s Jeff Miller (bottom left), Commissioner Roger Goodell (above) would only repeat that the NFL is supporting brain research. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (bottom right) called it absurd to link football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Photo by: AP IMAGES (3)
Among the owners who spoke out, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, chairman of the NFL’s legislative committee, disputed recent high-profile comments to a congressional roundtable from a league executive that there is a connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The comments made Irsay the first owner to directly challenge the testimony, though Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also last week described it as “absurd” to connect football and CTE, a disease only diagnosable port-mortem and
that’s been found in the brains of players who committed suicide and suffered from dementia and depression.

The league had long denied any link, both publicly and in court filings, until Jeff Miller,

the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, unexpectedly replied affirmatively on March 14 when asked by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D.-Ill.) whether there is a link between CTE and playing football.

Miller’s comment sent shock waves through the league, whose top outside medical adviser only weeks earlier at the Super Bowl had denied a link.

“I can’t say I agree with that comment,” Irsay said last week of Miller’s CTE remark. “[To] say you know all of a sudden there is a suicide or a murder, and to say, ‘Oh, that is football,’ I mean, that is completely ludicrous. It’s just not true. There is so much we don’t know. Whether you are dealing with Alzheimer’s, whether dealing with contact sports with concussions that can come into play, you know, we don’t know enough about it.”

The comments from Irsay and Jones were the sharpest public reactions among NFL owners to the growing narrative that playing football can cause CTE. But at the same time, they also reflect a sense among many of their peers that the league is not getting its due for investing to make the game safer. An additional sentiment is that too much is being made of brain research that is in early stages.

“People don’t give us any credit for the amount of work we are doing in this area for rules changes, for all the efforts we are making to try to get our hands around this thing,” said New York Giants co-owner John Mara, who has expressed concern about the rise in concussions in the NFL in 2015. Data released by the league earlier this year noted 271 diagnosed concussions for 2015, including games and practices. The league-reported number had declined in each of the prior two years.

Mara is also a member of the league’s health and safety advisory committee.

“The common theme has been, ‘Oh, they are in denial,’” he said of perceptions of the owners. “I mean, no one is in denial. We know there are issues, we know we have to deal with it.

MARA
“The science is in its infancy here,” Mara added. “We have a lot of work to do before we really have control of this thing.”

The league has invested tens of millions of dollars into brain research and said last week it is committed to continuing to do so. But the league had long refuted the link between football and CTE. Asked last week about Miller’s comment, Commissioner Roger Goodell would only repeat that the league is supporting scientific efforts into brain research. Like others within the league, he said Miller’s comment was consistent with previous NFL positions — which raised eyebrows, because for many, Miller seemed to make a connection that had not previously been made.

The class-action settlement in the concussion lawsuit brought by retired players, a settlement that is currently under appeal, specifically omits CTE for coverage for any cases diagnosed since the district court judge approved the deal last year. That omission is the crux of the objections, and the league in court and in briefs has defended that position by stating there is not enough science to support a link between CTE and football.

That’s reflective of Irsay’s position. Irsay, who chairs the committee that oversees the league’s political efforts in Washington, D.C., says there is not enough research in hand to convince him of a connection between CTE and football.

“I need to know more from the whole medical community that gets into brains and studies the exact effects,” he said. “And I don’t know enough about it [to the] extent that I understand you can have CTE and you don’t have any symptoms and you don’t have any effects. We don’t know enough about it. All I would agree with is if you ask me, you know, ‘Do you think football is risky? Do you think it causes injuries? Do you think, you know, you are risking your physical health somewhat when you get into this game?’ There is no question about that; there never has been.”

Other owners at the meeting also disputed whether enough science is available or if they were qualified to offer an opinion on the matter.

“I am not in a position. I am a layman. [Jeff Miller] is a layman as well,” said Jets owner Woody Johnson.

San Francisco 49ers owner John York, chairman of the health and safety advisory committee, said, “Obviously there has been CTE found in football players. Most of that work has been done at Boston University. Boston University has admitted that is a skewed sample. That doesn’t mean that their information isn’t correct, but they also said, ‘We don’t have enough information.’

“When you look at somebody like [hall of famer] Frank Gifford, who had a long full life and then is discovered at autopsy [to have CTE], what does that mean?” York said. “There are just too many questions. I am not trying to run from an answer. I just don’t know the answer.”

Those comments underline the continued frustration among owners and league officials who are struggling to deal with a delicate issue, one that’s proving to be in large part beyond their control.