Congress presses NFL commissioner on brain injuries
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Members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee put National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell on the defensive today, pressing him to explain how he is making the violent game safer for players and what he's doing for disabled retirees.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the chair of the committee, said he called the hearing to examine the issue of brain trauma in football from a variety of perspectives, and also to prod for independent analysis of medical research detailing the devastated brains of former football players.
"I do not think it's adequate for the league or players' association to hide behind the collective bargaining agreement" for which negotiations have begun, Mr. Conyers said.
Mr. Goodell and union head DeMaurice Smith pledged to make available all medical data on current players for independent review, and Mr. Goodell defended his actions as commissioner to address the problem -- from rule changes, to more caution with concussions, to giving all retirees with dementia $88,000 a year.
That wasn't enough for Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who interrupted Mr. Goodell multiple times after she brought up the story of former Steeler center Mike Webster, who suffered from dementia and was homeless when he died.
"We've heard from the NFL before," she said. "You're always studying; you're always trying; you're always hopeful. I want to know what you're doing now."
Ms. Waters also threatened Congressional action to take away the league's antitrust exemption, which allows it to operate as a monopoly.
Mr. Goodell insisted that although he is not certain that playing football is the direct cause of dementia, he is soliciting studies to form a consensus and taking action now to protect players and retirees.
Reps. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., called those studies into question because of the man who runs them: Dr. Ira Casson, who has been skeptical of findings that concussions cause dementia in football players.
Ms. Sanchez called planned inquiries by Dr. Casson a "charade."
"I recommend not someone who's on the payroll do the study," Ms. Sanchez said.
Among the other panelists to testify this morning was former Steeler Merril Hoge, who detailed the two concussions that ended his career with the Chicago Bears in 1994 -- and nearly ended his life. He said in the days after his second concussion, spent in intensive care, he could not recognize his wife, son or brother.
He called for all players to be evaluated by a neurological doctor and held out of action for seven days after concussion symptoms subside -- which the members of Congress said was a good step.
"What happened to me would not happen in the National Football League today," said Mr. Hoge, who returned to play just five days after his first concussion. "That does not mean that we are already there. We are not all the way."
Steelers team neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon this afternoon disputed a contention by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president Gay Culverhouse that team doctors push players back in too soon because they are under the influence of coaches and owners who want results.
"At no time in my 25 years of professional career for [the Steelers] have I felt pressure that I should modify my diagnostic decision-making for any individual," Dr. Maroon said.
He also praised the league's actions, which Mr. Goodell detailed, to reduce the risk of head injuries.
"From my experience, the NFL is a model in concussion management," Dr. Maroon said.
But Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Steelers team doctor who works at West Virginia University and has studied the brains of deceased football players, said the league has been too slow to embrace the science.
"They may continue to say, 'We're going to keep studying,'" Dr. Bailes said. "But it's my scientific and medical opinion that we now have enough indisputable research ... that confirms the reality of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the scientific term for the brain trauma]. Unless changes occur, further injuries will happen in professional football players all the way down to youth."
First Published October 28, 2009 1:43 pm