NFL to encourage players to donate brains for study

The NFL is partnering with Boston University brain researchers who
have been critical of the league’s stance on concussions, The
Associated Press learned Sunday.

The league now plans to encourage current and former NFL
players to agree to donate their brains to the Boston University
Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has said it
found links between repeated head trauma and brain damage in
boxers, football players and, most recently, a former NHL player.

“It’s huge that the NFL actively gets behind this research,”
said Robert Cantu, a doctor who is a co-director of the BU center
and has spoken negatively about the league in the past. “It
forwards the research. It allows players to realize the NFL is
concerned about the possibility that they could have this problem,
and that the NFL is doing everything it can to find out about the
risks and the preventive strategies that can be implemented.”

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the AP on Sunday that the
league also is committed to giving $1 million or more to the
center. Aiello said the league already has held discussions with
the NFL Alumni Association about suggesting that retired players
look into participating in BU’s work by offering their brains for
study after they die.

The league also will contact the nearly 100 retired football
players who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia and
are receiving benefits from the league to ask their families to
consider donating those players’ brains to the BU study.

“The people affiliated with the center have identified the
donation of brains, both from healthy people and those that have
had multiple concussions, as their most critical need right now to
further the research into this disease,” Aiello said. “We … will
discuss with the center its research needs as we go forward in this
partnership.”

Cantu said he and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met in
October to discuss concussions and the BU project.

Sunday’s news represents the latest in a series of moves the
NFL has made in recent weeks to step up its attention to
concussions in the aftermath of a congressional hearing on the
topic.

That included stricter return-to-play guidelines detailing
what symptoms preclude someone from participating in games or
practices; a mandate that each team select a league- and
union-approved independent neurologist to be consulted when players
get concussions; and the departure of the two co-chairmen of the
NFL’s committee on brain trauma.

“They have done a bit of an about-face. Pressure probably has
played a role in that,” Cantu said in a telephone interview. “But I
honestly think that Goodell does believe in player safety and the
product is just better with your best players on the field, not
your best players injured.”

Aiello said Sunday that a concussion study the league has
been conducting since 2007 is on hold until the former committee
co-chairmen — Ira Casson and David Viano – are replaced. They
resigned last month. He said the league is interviewing candidates,
none of whom is currently affiliated with the league or any team.

“Now that we’re changing the committee, we want to make some
revisions in how the study proceeds,” Aiello said in a telephone
interview.

The New York Times first reported that the study is on
hold.

Casson is slated to testify at a House Judiciary Committee
hearing Jan. 4 about football head injuries. He did not attend the
panel’s hearing Oct. 28, when BU’s Cantu said there is “growing and
convincing evidence” that repetitive concussive and subconcussive
hits to the head in NFL players leads to a degenerative brain
disease.

Another co-director of the BU center, Ann McKee, showed the
committee images of brains of dead football players with the
disease and told lawmakers, “We need to take radical steps” to
change the way football is played.