'A turning point.' That’s what KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel calls the NFL’s admission this week that football head injuries are a contributor to long-term health consequences for retired players.
The admission came during a discussion on Capitol Hill about concussion research. An NFL executive acknowledged for the first time that football has been linked to a degenerative brain disease.
In a story published by NPR, Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president for health and safety, admitted the connection when he was asked about research by Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who has reported finding signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of 90 out of 94 former pro football players — and 45 out of 55 former college players.
Both Miller and McKee were testifying at the hearing by the House Committee on Energy & Commerce. After McKee urged taking steps "immediately" to limit the risk to young athletes, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., asked Miller if he thinks football and CTE are linked.
'A Big Deal'
"This was a big deal because the NFL hasn’t been admitting that," Thiel said.
"Six weeks earlier at the Super Bowl, one of the chief physicians of the NFL, Mitch Berger, said in an interview that ‘No, we haven’t established a connection.’
"And everyone looked at that and said ‘What were you thinking?’ Because there is a lot of evidence out there. There’s even a movie out starring Will Smith, talking about what the NFL’s position was.
"And the position was locking their elbows against the overwhelming evidence of science saying there’s a connection.
"Now, we don’t know why it happens in some and not in others. We don’t know a lot of things about it because CTE is only diagnosed posthumously.
"So, much research remains to be done but, clearly, there’s something going on among retired players any anyone else who’s had consistent head trauma and this particular disease that really debilitates the retired players – and that’s even in players as young as 40.
"The issue finally, I think, had a point of no return. The NFL is finally admitting what is obvious.
"It’s like saying ‘Well, yeah, at night it gets pretty dark.’ They finally figured it out," Thiel said.
What Happens Now?
"I don’t know that (the admission by the NFL) is going to impact the current litigation that’s going on," Thiel continued.
"Retired players sued and reached a settlement with the NFL that gave them $765 million in benefits if they could establish the debilitations from head trauma.
"But the NFL also agreed in that settlement not to acknowledge responsibility of football for causing this. They’re just saying ‘Well, here’s the money, go away.’
"And the NFL also said in that suit that ‘We are not going to be responsible for players going forward.’
"So this may not be something that changes the current litigation but it’s going to change everything with the NFL in terms of accepting the responsibility.
"They claim they’re putting a lot of money into research and they’re trying everything they can do in terms of rules changes to minimize the impact of head trauma.
"But they can’t stop it. It’s a collision sport. And that’s the bigger issue here: what are they going to do to minimize this significantly in this sport?"
Turning Point For All Contact Sports?
Thiel said long-term changes in contact sports are in the hands of parents.
"This is a cue, I think, for a lot of parents of young kids who are debating their future in athletics," he said.
"They’re going to say ‘If the NFL agrees that this is happening, maybe we’re going to keep our kids away from youth football.
"That can also apply in soccer. Certainly it applies on the professional and youth level to hockey, which is a sport that’s really been even been behind the NFL in admitting responsibility for head trauma and long-term health effects.
"I think this is going to be seen, years down the road, as a turning point.
"Much as it was in the 1960s when the tobacco companies had to face the overwhelming amount of science that said smoking is bad for your long-term health. They finally admitted it. They’re still around," Thiel pointed out.
"I think the NFL will still be around in 20 or 30 years. But it could be much changed.
"And we’ll look back at what happened here in 2016 and say ‘that was the turning point.’"