On the contentious issue of concussions, the NFL has relented on a once-steadfast stance.
Yes, the league acknowledged publicly for the first time, there is a connection between football and the devastating brain disease known as CTE.
The NFL backed Tuesday the comments made at a congressional panel by Jeff Miller, the league’s senior vice president for health and safety, that his surprising words "accurately reflect the view of the NFL," league spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
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The league has long denied proof linking the sport and the condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. As recently as the week of the Super Bowl, Dr. Mitch Berger, a member of the league’s head, neck and spine committee, refused to draw a direct line from football to CTE.
So that’s what made Miller’s admission, at a round-table discussion about concussions, somewhat startling.
He said brain research on former NFL players "certainly" shows a link between football and CTE when asked about the subject. Miller referenced the work of Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who has found CTE in the brains of 90 of the 94 former pro football players she studied after their death.
"The answer to that question is certainly yes, but there are also a number of questions that come with that," Miller said, deferring to physicians on the science of the subject of CTE evidence.
CTE is tied to repeated brain trauma and associated with symptoms such as memory loss, depression and progressive dementia. Players diagnosed after their deaths include Hall of Famers Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and Mike Webster.
Four Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter Tuesday to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, asking for answers by March 29 on the league’s plans to protect both NFL players and those at the youth levels.
Critics of the NFL’s proposed $1 billion plan to settle concussion claims called Miller’s sudden acknowledgement of a football-CTE connection a game changer. The settlement is being appealed by players concerned that it excludes future cases of CTE, what they consider "the signature disease of football."
The deal announced by lead plaintiffs’ lawyers and the NFL in August 2013 would instead pay up to $4 million for prior deaths involving CTE.
"Given that, the settlement’s failure to compensate present and future CTE is inexcusable," lawyer Steven Molo wrote Tuesday in a letter to the federal appeals court in Philadelphia that is hearing his appeal.
Miller’s admission might not have any tangible effect on the case, though, given the timing. The appellate reviews are typically only focused on the court records.
"It’s an uphill battle to have this even debated by the appellate judges, but it does give a glimmer of hope for the objectors," said Andrew Brandt, an ESPN analyst specializing in the business of the league.
The court heard arguments in November on the fairness of the settlement and was expected to issue an opinion in the high-stakes case soon. The NFL and lead plaintiffs’ lawyers have said they do not want to incentivize suicide by offering future payments. CTE cannot yet be diagnosed in the living.
The settlement would resolve thousands of lawsuits and cover more than 20,000 NFL retirees for the next 65 years. The league estimates that 6,000 former players (nearly three in 10) could develop Alzheimer’s disease or moderate dementia.
They would receive an average of $190,000, though the awards could reach several million dollars in the most serious cases, including young men with Parkinson’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
"We welcome the NFL’s acknowledgement of what was alleged in our complaint: that reports have associated football with findings of CTE in deceased former players," lead plaintiffs’ lawyer Christopher Seeger said in a statement. "The settlement achieves that, providing immediate care to the sickest retired players and long-term security over the next 65 years for those who are healthy now but develop a qualifying condition in the future."
Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who runs the Concussion Legacy Foundation, noted that millions of children still play tackle football despite the suspected risks. The foundation seeks to study and prevent head trauma in athletes.
"If we actually believe that football is linked to CTE now, then how is the NFL underwriting (youth) tackle football when kids could just as easily play flag and not be exposed to the risk of CTE at such a young age?" he asked.
The impact of the admission on college football is unclear, but a lead attorney in a lawsuit against the NCAA said he also saw this development as a milestone in the process.
"It is amazing to think back to 2011, when we filed the first-ever class action against the NCAA for concussions, and compare the national conversation at that time to what we have now," Chicago-based lawyer Joseph Siprut said.
The admission by Miller could make an impact beyond the gridiron, too.
Plaintiffs in a similar case of retired players suing the NHL for concussion-related damages called on that league Tuesday to acknowledge as much. Commissioner Gary Bettman said last year "from a medical and science standpoint, there is no evidence" of a connection between head injuries and CTE. The NHL didn’t respond Tuesday to a request for new comment.
"While the NFL, after intense public pressure, has finally admitted publicly that there is `certainly’ a link, the NHL, to this day, continues to deny that there is any long-term danger associated with suffering repeated concussions and sub-concussive blows, even in the face of compelling medical evidence," the co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs said in a statement.