Congress tackling football brain injuries


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WASHINGTON -- Federal intervention in addressing football safety has more than a century-long precedent.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt's White House meeting with Ivy League football powers eventually led to rules based on speed over force -- including legalizing the forward pass -- and fewer deaths in the game.

Today, when Congress hears testimony on head injuries in the National Football League, the stakes are not as high as when Mr. Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport. But medical evidence is mounting about the devastating long-term effects of choosing football as a career.

Still, what can Congress or the NFL do to legislate safety into a game based on violent collisions?

In a news conference yesterday, NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith, who is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee along with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and several others, said he is not seeking legislation and instead is looking forward to gathering more information about how to protect and care for traumatic brain injuries.

The union -- which has been at odds, at times, with the league in embracing research about the aftereffects of an NFL career -- has formed its own commission to look at the issue. Yet Mr. Smith emphasized that the hearing "is not a battle between us and the league."

Mr. Smith praised the league for taking measures to protect player safety, including rule changes penalizing more aggressive hits and a move to test players' brain function to create a baseline comparison if they suffer big hits.

Mr. Smith has included Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFLPA's medical adviser, in collective bargaining negotiations to stress health care concerns. Dr. Mayer, who also appeared at the news conference, said he would like to see more players wearing safer helmets and better management of players after they sustain concussions -- including decisions on when they return to the field.

Evidence is mounting in terms of the effects of head injuries over a career, including from the NFL itself. The league last month released a study it commissioned showing that former players are diagnosed with Alzheimer's and other dementia at much higher rates than the general population, including 19 times higher between age 30 and 49. It was the first time the league acknowledged a connection between its game and the cognitive function of its retirees.

House Judiciary Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said he called the hearing, in part, because of the NFL's study.

"The NFL's recently commissioned study by the University of Michigan regarding head injuries among former players raises significant health concerns," Mr. Conyers said in a statement.

"The Committee expects to hear from medical experts, former players, and others about the prevalence of these injuries and the conditions which may have contributed to their lasting effects at the professional and amateur levels."

In June 2007, a Judiciary subcommittee heard testimony on care for NFL retirees that mostly dealt with the league's pension and benefits plans. Mr. Smith this year settled a contentious lawsuit between the NFLPA and its retired players.

Mr. Conyers intends to focus this hearing specifically on brain injuries -- and on their ramifications in college and high school football as well.

In an e-mailed statement, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote: "We testified before the committee two years ago on retired player benefits and look forward to further discussing these important matters and reviewing the work we have done to reduce and properly manage concussions and assist our retired players."

Former Steelers Terry Long and Mike Webster have figured prominently in the debate over the long-term health effects of an NFL career.

Mr. Webster, a Hall-of-Fame center for the Steelers, died in 2002 and suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy from repeated head injuries. His family won disability benefits from the NFL after suing the league's pension fund.

Mr. Long, a lineman, committed suicide in 2005 by drinking antifreeze, but the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office listed head trauma as a contributing factor to the death.

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony from 17 witnesses today from a variety of backgrounds.

The list includes Steelers neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon -- who questioned the county Medical Examiner's finding of head trauma as a factor in the Long case -- and Merril Hoge, who played fullback for the Steelers from 1987 to 1993. Mr. Hoge, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, had to retire from the league after the 1994 season due to a series of head injuries.

Dr. Julian Bailes, of West Virginia University, a former team physician for the Steelers, is also scheduled to testify. A recent study by Dr. Bailes examined the effects of high quantities of subconcussive hits -- raising the question that severe damage can build from routine plays, not just the big collisions that send players to the sidelines.

So is the conclusion the same as the one pondered by Teddy Roosevelt a century ago?

Asked about the possibility that there is no solution to the risks, Dr. Mayer compared football to driving a car, which remains hazardous -- but less than it once was because of safety advances.

"I think we're going to get to a point where this game -- which is always dangerous and will always be dangerous -- will be far less dangerous when it comes to head injury," Dr. Mayer said.


Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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