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Time for Goodell, NFL to step up regarding concussion research

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Overwhelming evidence is out there, so the NFL owes it to its players to take the research seriously and not be afraid of changing the game to make it safer.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday the New York Times fired the latest round in an ongoing debate over the effects of head injuries in football.

And the NFL scrambled to fire back.

But after sending mixed signals on an issue it  has tried its best to ignore, the league appeared disingenuous at best, apathetic at worst.

There were 199 concussions in the NFL last year, compared to 123 the year before and 171 in 2012.

The Broncos - which recorded eight concussions in 2014, among the highest in the NFL that year - only had three last year, among the lowest in the league.

But concussions continue to be a problem - and the NFL knows it.

It just doesn't apparently want to do much about it.

The Times - issuing an investigative report Thursday over a series of research studies commissioned by the NFL 20 years ago on the link between concussions and brain injury - reported that more than 100 concussions occurring during the five-year study were left off the list.

Most notably, not a single Dallas Cowboy was among the 887 documented concussions in the five-year research - research that was billed as inclusive of every documented concussion from 1996-2001.

Not a single Dallas Cowboy concussion was documented by NFL researchers between 1996 and 2001, despite QB Troy Aikman having four concussions in that time. Likewise, no 49ers player showed up between 1997 and 2000 on the list, yet Steve Young had seven concussions between 1985-1999.

Despite this omission, public documents show that Cowboys' quarterback Troy Aikman suffered four concussions in that time.

Likewise, no 49ers players appeared on the list between 1997 and 2000, yet former 49ers quarterback Steve Young retired from football in 1999 after suffering seven concussions over his career.

The NFL's research in those five years produced 13 peer-reviewed papers that the league consistently referred to as its scientific evidence to downplay any negative long-term effects of head injuries.

The NFL on Thursday issued a statement saying the studies never claimed to be based on every concussion that was reported (hence the missing 10 percent of concussions from the list). Yet the peer-reviewed research papers indicated that findings came from studying every documented head injury or concussion from every team over the five-year span.

The Times explained in its rebuttal to the NFL that it had obtained the confidential concussion data from the 1996-2001 studies and compared the NFL's documented concussions in those studies - listed by code only - with public record data, such as dates on which concussions were reported by teams to the media.

To identify the teams, the Times examined the dates on which each team's concussions occurred and whether the game was listed as home or away. That information was compared with the teams' schedules during that time and matched to the information recorded for the NFL's  887 documented cases.

The report is the latest evidence that the NFL has downplayed the problems associated with head injuries and long-term effects, but it is particularly interesting in light of comments two weeks ago by Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety, who acknowledged before Congress that there is a link between concussions and CTE.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that has been discovered in dozens of former NFL players, most notably Ken Stabler, Frank Gifford and Junior Seau.

Although the NFL did agree in 2013 to settle a $765 million lawsuit to more than 4,500 former players and their families for covering up the risks of concussions, it has been hesitant to admit much of a cause and effect between head injuries and long-term damage to the brain.

Miller's statements - which were somewhat reiterated by Roger Goodell earlier this week at the NFL Owner's Meeting - put the NFL's alignment with negative effects on the brain closer than ever before.

But even still, the establishment isn't quite ready to admit there is a link, much less a problem in the NFL.

Cowboys' coach Jerry Jones called the notion "absurd."

"There's no data that in any way creates a knowledge," he said on Tuesday.

Bruce Arians, head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, chastised people who would allow the information about concussions to keep their children out of football.

"We have this fear of concussion that is real, but not all of those, I think, statistics can prove anything," Arians told Sports Illustrated. "This is the greatest game in the world... it teaches more values than any other game that you play. ...People that say, 'I won't let my son play [football]' are fools."

Research within the last year has, in fact, found increased links between head trauma and CTE. Brain bank studies of former high school football players and other athletes, scans of brains of NFL football players decades after retirement, plus replicated head trauma to animal models suggesting permanent brain damage are among the studies in the past year lending credence to the link between concussions in football and CTE.

ESPN's Outside the Lines reported back in February on the funding mechanism the NFL employs for its on-going concussion research. Although it has committed more than $100 million toward research studies, OTL found that the league sets its own rules, often to the benefit of league doctors and detriment of critics - which some researchers believe is keeping the NFL from finding the truth about football and brain disease.

Proving its flip-flopping view once again, the chief of the NFL subcommittee on long-term brain injury asserted during Super Bowl week that there is no proven link between football and CTE, and Goodell was criticized for comparing the risk of playing youth football to the risk of "sitting on the couch."

OTL also pointed out that the NFL withdrew funding from a major CTE study last year because it objected to the researcher but it still handed over millions of dollars in research grants to league-affiliated doctors.

Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Pittsburgh Steelers doctor and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., believes it is dangerous for the NFL to cast shadows around CTE research.

"We can't let these scientific discussions be hijacked by people creating doubts about causation," said Bailes, who also is the medical director for Pop Warner football. "The only known cause we have thus far is repetitive cranial impact."

The science behind concussions is important to understand. Concussion is not the same a blunt-force trauma like getting hit in the head with an object. In those cases, injury is caused by directly transmitted shock due to the impact.

But a concussion is caused by internal movement and distortion of the brain as it bounces around the cranium after an impact:

This bouncing, research has shown, deforms bundles of axons that connect different regions of the brain. The deformation causes axons to release their protein contents, which can form abnormal tangles over time similar to those found in Alzheimer's disease. It also causes abnormal inflows of sodium and calcium ions in unsevered but damaged axons. These, in turn, trigger a process which releases protein-breaking enzymes that destroy the axon, further disrupting the brain's internal communications.

Bailes noted that until recently it was thought that concussion from accidents in contact sports such as football was a temporary malfunction rather than a permanent injury. This view began to change a decade ago when a pathologist in Pittsburgh wanted to find out why former Steelers' center Mike Webster had become violent and confused before dying unexpectedly at age 50.

Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered tau-protein deposits in Webster's brain and proposed that the footballer had died of CTE, something previously considered as a cause of death only in boxers. This revelation, and his fight with the NFL, was the subject of the recent film, "Concussion."

Since then, Drs. Bailes and Omalu have been collecting the brains of former athletes, and also of old soldiers who have been exposed to explosions, to try to understand who gets CTE and why.

Not the end of football, NFL

So what's the point of all this?

Mainly that it needs to stop being ignored by the NFL.

There is too much anecdotal evidence among former football players as well as scientific evidence on the effect of concussions that long-term problems are highly possible.

Too often players, coaches - even fans - would prefer to ignore the potential negative effects sustained from hits in football because we're afraid it's going to change the game. Many already think the game has gotten "soft" with all the measures to protect quarterbacks, eliminate helmet-to-helmet contact, etc.

Football, critics surmise, will no longer be about big hits, playing tough and just letting the athletes play the game.

But to quote Jerry Jones - that's absurd.

The NFL - Goodell in particular - needs to stop being afraid of discovering what is scientifically very likely - athletes in contact sports like football are at a much higher risk of long-term brain damage due to trauma to the head, sometimes which results in a concussion.

Knowledge is power, so the NFL needs to stop derailing research and allow for definitive information on the effects of concussions and other trauma to be discovered.

Should the link between football head injuries and CTE turn out to be true - as research seems to be indicating - this does not mean the end of football nor the end of the NFL.

But players are always going to want to play. And coaches are always going to want them to play. So the impetus is on the people who run the industry to make the sport as safe as possible.

And to ignore information that concussions and other head injuries in football (and other contact sports) could be responsible for long-term suffering - some of which may be leading to suicidal tendencies - is an absolute tragedy.

Players are always going to want to play. And coaches are always going to want them to play. So the impetus is on the NFL to make the sport as safe as possible. And that means not ignoring the evidence.

Ignoring, discrediting, or worse, misrepresenting what research is telling us is far more of a disservice to the game than any rule changes that may make it "less tough."

I bet if you asked Junior Seau, Dave Duerson or Ray Easterline - all former NFL players who suffered from CTE and each who committed suicide - would have been willing to change the game if it would have meant a different outcome for them physically and pschologically.

I'm not even advocating drastic measures in the game - not yet anyway - but I am indicting Goodell and the NFL for what appears to be ignorance at the very least and data manipulation to keep the issue under wraps at the most.

If the NFL truly values player safety - and is not just paying lip service to the idea -  then it should be a no-brainer (pun intended) to institute real changes for:

  • funding independent research on the issue;
  • educating players about the dangers;
  • promoting research and development on safety gear that can better protect players on the field; and
  • consistently and severely punishing players who violate known safety rules.

It's time to step up, Goodell, and for once do the right thing.