NFL Finally Admits A Link Between Football And Traumatic Brain Disease

CREDIT: Gene J. Puskar, AP

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, center, poses with youth football players from the Akron Parents Pee Wee Football League after they received new helmets in Akron, Ohio on Aug. 4, 2012

On Monday, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, was asked if there is an “unequivocal link” between football and CTE, the degenerative brain disease that results in dementia, mood swings, and depression.

“The answer to that question is certainly yes,” Miller said at the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce roundtable discussion on concussions.

This is the first time a top NFL official has acknowledged the link, and the significance is on par with tobacco companies finally admitting that smoking leads to cancer.

The relationship between football and CTE has been apparent for some time, particularly since research conducted last year by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University found that a total of 87 of 91 deceased former football players tested positive for CTE. (That number has increased to 90 of 94.)

But Miller’s statement is still surprising, because the NFL has always danced around the correlation. As recently as the Super Bowl in February, commissioner Roger Goodell got defensive when questioned about the safety of the league, saying “there’s risks in life, there’s risks to sitting on a couch.” That same week, Dr. Mitch Berger, the leader of the NFL subcommittee on long-term brain injury, said the link between CTE and football had yet to be established.

According to Nicole Fisher, a Forbes contributor who was present at the hearing, Miller was caught completely off-guard by the question from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who was forceful with her inquiries, directing Miller to a clear “yes or no” answer.

After Miller admitted the link, he declined to elaborate and tried to steer the conversation towards the future, saying, “I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means, and where do we go from here with that information.”

The league has historically not been trustworthy when it comes to research on brain damage. ESPN’s Outside the Lines has accused the NFL of blocking “unrestricted” grant money from being used to fund an extensive CTE study. Most of the league’s donations to CTE research directly benefit doctors that are affiliated with the NFL, which OTL says often “steers research away from potentially uncomfortable truths about the relationship between football and brain disease.”

However, the consequences of Miller’s statement could be wide-reaching. Just hours after it was reported, a lawyer representing seven former players sent a letter to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. They are objecting to the proposed settlement of the concussion lawsuit against the league, and argue that Miller’s acknowledgement is a “stark turn” from the league’s former position.