After years of claiming it wasn’t clear whether football was behind an epidemic of degenerative brain disorders in retired athletes, the nation’s most popular sport finally – perhaps historically – came clean this week.
“The answer to that is certainly yes,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, told a roundtable on concussions convened by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce on Monday.
Yes, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, appears to be linked to head injuries in football. And yes, the NFL confirmed later, Miller meant to say that.
Good to know, because the league had long insisted that nobody knew what caused the devastating brain ailment, which has shown up in nearly 100 deceased NFL players’ autopsies.
Research published in the past several years has shown that CTE is rampant in professional football, with incidences far higher than in the general population. And the prevalence extends not just to the pros but also to college and high school football players, and not just to football players, but athletes in all contact sports with a high risk of repeated brain trauma.
Nonetheless, the NFL’s go-to response to CTE news has, until now, echoed the one the tobacco industry used to dredge up when asked whether cigarettes caused lung cancer. Just a couple of months ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell answered a question about kids dying of football injuries, including head injuries, by noting that such deaths were “tragic,” but “there’s risk in sitting on the couch.”
The speculation is that Miller’s response was a calculated legal tactic, designed to fend off future lawsuits by making it impossible for athletes to say the league didn’t warn them about the risk.
To that extent, families should pause for just a moment of gratitude to the medical researchers and gutsy plaintiff’s lawyers who dared question one of the most sacred cows in American culture. Their work hasn’t always been popular, despite its importance not just to professional athletes, but to the millions of children who participate in contact sports in middle school and high school.
The ramifications of the NFL admission shouldn’t just be legal. The league’s influence on youth and collegiate sports can’t be overstated.
California already has passed some of the nation’s most stringent measures to reduce head injuries and concussions in interscholastic football, thanks to a groundbreaking bill pushed in 2014 by Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova.
This week, Cooley told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member that he plans to ask experts at UCLA and the California Interscholastic Federation for an update on what has been learned since new rules on supervision and limits on contact practice time have been enacted.
The state also should look at ways to build on preventive programs in youth sports, and to better staff middle and high school games with health care providers who can recognize and treat brain trauma. Californians also should have a conversation about whether contact sports are even developmentally appropriate for kids younger than high school age; there’s a reason flag football participation is way up.
Sports are a joy, and it may be hard to dial back the ways in which commerce has perverted them into dangerous combat. But talking about it is a step in the right direction.
Yes, there is an obvious link between being violently and repeatedly knocked around and lifelong brain trauma, and encouraging young people to do it for scholarships and entertainment is immoral. No one should be crippled for the sake of a game, whether for money or childhood fun.