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NFL backtracks on executive's admission of brain injury link

Ben Schmitt
| Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 11:20 p.m.
NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller speaks during an NFL health and safety news conference on Feb. 4, 2016, in San Francisco.
NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller speaks during an NFL health and safety news conference on Feb. 4, 2016, in San Francisco.

For a few minutes, it appeared that the NFL — in game-changing fashion — linked football to the high-profile debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

Then league officials slightly backpedaled, reigniting a long-standing scientific debate about the association between contact sports, head injuries and CTE.

For some, it meant the argument had been settled.

“There is no longer a dispute between science and the NFL in regards to the existence of a disease that is linked to repetitive head trauma in American football,” said Dr. Ronald L. Hamilton, a neuropathologist who trained former Allegheny County Deputy Coroner Bennet Omalu, the main subject of the 2015 movie “Concussion.”

The NFL's potential course reversal emerged Monday during a congressional committee's roundtable discussion in Washington about concussions.

“Do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, asked Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety.

Miller initially cited the work of Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee, who has found CTE in the brains of 90 former pro football players.

“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,' but there are also a number of questions that come with that,” Miller said.

Schakowsky repeated the question: “Is there a link?”

“Yes. Sure,” Miller responded. He later followed up that he is not a doctor.

The NFL later issued a clarification to Miller's statement.

“He was discussing Dr. McKee's findings and made the additional point that a lot more questions need to be answered,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in a statement regarding Miller's comments. “He said that the experts should speak to the state of the science.”

Hamilton said it's “worrisome” that NFL officials aren't on the same page.

“This is the sort of non-denial denial that is par for the course,” said Hamilton, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor who was portrayed in “Concussion,” took note of Miller's remarks.

“This helps us to advance and frame the problem, understand how it occurs and advance the science to make all contact sports safer,” he said.

But Bailes, who chairs the department of neurosurgery and is co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., was perplexed about Miller making the revelation just weeks after an NFL official made contradictory statements.

During Super Bowl week, Dr. Mitch Berger, a San Francisco neurosurgeon who leads the NFL subcommittee on long-term brain injury, maintained that there still is no established link between football and CTE.

“People want to cast doubt, but thus far, the only known cause of CTE is exposure to thousands of impacts to the head,” Bailes said. “That is not hard to understand. That makes all the sense in the world. That is the cause.”

Asked about Berger's opposing statement at the congressional meeting, Miller said, “Well, I'm not going to speak for Dr. Berger.”

Miller's words could have wide-ranging legal implications.

A lawyer representing seven former NFL players who object to the proposed settlement of a concussion lawsuit against the league sent a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia reacting to Miller's comments.

“The NFL's statements make clear that the NFL now accepts what science already knows: A ‘direct link' exists between traumatic brain injury and CTE,” attorney Steven Molo of New York wrote in a filing to the appellate court. “Given that, the settlement's failure to compensate present and future CTE is inexcusable. The NFL's testimony also directly contradicts its positions in this case. For example, the NFL argued that ‘researchers have not reliably determined which events make a person more likely to develop CTE.'”

Molo told the Tribune-Review that there's no taking back Miller's statement.

“He said that in Congress, and he happens to be right,” Molo said. “It's about time the NFL owned up to the issue; the science has spoken. There's no confusion. He said what he said.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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