When an NFL executive recently admitted in front of a congressional committee that there's a connection between football and head trauma, it appeared to be a sentient moment of candor for the league. But two weeks later, it's clear the NFL is still trying to obfuscate the truth on concussions.
On Thursday, the New York Times published an expose on the league's deeply flawed concussion research. The Times says the NFL omitted 100 diagnosed concussions from its supposedly all-encompassing study from 1996-2001, which understated the risks of playing football. The NFL fired back at the Times with a 2,500-word missive of its own, accusing the paper of distorting the truth.
The NFL's defensiveness is a far cry from what Jeff Miller, the league's senior vice president of healthy and safety, told Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) a couple of weeks ago. Miller said a link had been established between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain condition known as CTE. He cited the research of Boston University, which has found traces of the disease in 90 out of 94 brains of deceased players it's examined.
"Well, certainly Dr. McKee's research shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE, so the answer to that question is certainly yes," Miller said, via the Associated Press. "But there's also a number of questions that come with that."
Just one month earlier, the neurosurgeon who heads the NFL’s subcommittee on long-term brain injury, Dr. Mitch Berger, denied any proven correlation between the two. In his annual state of the league press conference prior to Super Bowl 50, commissioner Roger Goodell downplayed the risks of playing football, as well.
"From my standpoint, I played football for nine years through high school and I wouldn’t give up a single day of that," Goodell said. "If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch."
I am #blessed to survive a night on the couch. But I knew the risks.— Chris Long (@JOEL9ONE) February 8, 2016
For years, nary an NFL official would even dare to utter "CTE" and "football" in the same sentence. But Miller tied the two together.
At the owners' meetings last week, though, the league didn't embrace Miller's revelation. Instead, it contorted it. When asked about Miller's comments at his press conference Wednesday, Roger Goodell sidestepped the question like a professional tap dancer.
"We think the statements that have been made through Jeff Miller and others have been consistent with our position over the years," Goodell said. "We've actually funded those studies, so we're not only aware of those, we recognize them and we support those studies. A lot of the research is still in its infancy, but we're trying to find ways to accelerate that, and that's part of what we're doing in investing in additional research this week."
What that means is anybody's guess.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was a bit more clear in his rebuke of Miller's words, saying it's "absurd" to think there's a link between football and CTE. He attempted to clarify his comments Wednesday, but wound up just repeating the party line: despite 90 out of 94 brains of deceased players showing signs of CTE, there apparently still isn't enough evidence to make any determinations.
"I'm just saying in a way your heart information might have been 50, 60 years ago and this will probably have a lot of time evolving, evaluating first of all how, if you can, to detect CTE during your active life," Jones said, via the Dallas Morning News. "We don't know how to do that and we certainly don't know really the consequences of it at all."
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair echoed Jones' statements, saying he's concerned about the "misconceptions" surrounding head trauma.
"I’m more concerned about the misconceptions people can have about it than I am about what’s really taking place. We’re studying this issue closely, more than anyone else," McNair said, via ESPN. "We’ve put up money for research before anyone else did. Our medical scientists still don’t know what the cause of CTE is. It appears that if you’ve had multiple concussions from whatever you’ve been doing, riding a bicycle, skateboarding, it’s not just football, that there’s a possibility it could lead to CTE."
Colts owner Jim Irsay openly, and irresponsibly, disagreed with Miller's comments:
"To try to tie football, like I said, to suicides or murders or what have you, I believe that is just so absurd as well and it is harmful to other diseases," Irsay told the Sports Business Journal. "When you get into the use of steroids, when you get into substance abuse, you get into the illness of alcohol and addiction. It’s a shame that gets missed, because there [are] very deadly diseases there, for instance, like alcoholism and addiction."
Irsay, who had a 20-year battle with substance abuse, failed to mention former NFL players like Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher, whose brains were found to have signs of CTE after they committed suicide.
On Wednesday, the NFL announced it will bump touchbacks to the 25-yard line on a one-year trial basis next season in an effort to curtail the number of kickoff returns. The kickoff is arguably the most dangerous play in the game, and the league has attempted to ween it out over the last several years.
The rule change is a positive development on the surface, but even that has come under scrutiny. Some across the league feel it will actually lead to more returns, because kickers may be more apt to strategically place the football just shy of the goal line.
But the truth is, that's an ancillary issue. Until the NFL publicly recognizes the real truth on the dangers of concussions, every player safety initiative is the equivalent of window dressing. The events of the last week show the league is still only concerned with protecting the shield.