For the first time ever, the National Football League has officially acknowledged that the sport leads to brain damage. The statement came from Jeff Miller, the league’s senior vice president for health and safety. In a roundtable discussion with the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce, Miller was asked if there was a link between football and brain damage and diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. His response?
“The answer to that question is certainly yes.”
Even after years and years of inquisition and multiple class action lawsuits, the NFL has taken the staunch stance that their sport has no connection to brain damage. But now that their senior vice president for health and safety has stated otherwise, what does it mean for the NFL? Will they survive the fresh onslaught of lawsuits that are sure to be heading their way?
How It All Went Down
Miller based his statement on some solid research. Dr. Ann McKee is a Boston University neuropathologist who has been studying this issue for many years. Out of 94 NFL players studied, she found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 90 of them. In addition, she found signs of CTE in 45 out of 55 college players studied. McKee testified at the roundtable hearing to explain her findings, then urged the committee to protect young athletes and limit their risk of brain damage. It was then Miller was asked if he agreed, which of course he said he did.
This isn’t just a direct departure from a stance the NFL took a few years back. The month before this particular hearing, Dr. Mitchel Berger, a neurosurgeon who is the lead physician on brain injuries for the league, stated the exact opposite to the same question. Just three days before the Super Bowl, Berger said there is no link between football and brain conditions like CTE. In fact, when the 2015 movie Concussion came out that exposed the issue, the NFL took steps to make sure the film was toned down and didn’t do too much damage to the league’s image.
A Quick Look at CTE
So what exactly is chronic traumatic encephalopathy? It is a specific kind of brain damage that comes from repeated head trauma, like football players and boxers would endure. Brain tissue slowly deteriorates, and there is also a buildup of a protein called tau. While there is no timeline for the onset of CTE — it could take months, years or even decades — the effects are drastic. It results in confusion, memory loss, aggression, dementia and severe depression.
Oftentimes, this depression can become so serious that it leads to depression. In fact, multiple NFL players who suffered from CTE have taken their own lives in the past few years. Notable examples include Junior Seau and Dave Deurson, the latter of which donated his brain to study CTE after committing suicide. In fact, 30 professional football players have committed suicide, the majority of which had symptoms of CTE.
So What Happens Now?
Last year, there was a massive class action lawsuit against the NFL from former football players who had suffered from concussions and CTE. In April, a $1 billion settlement was agreed upon. Attorneys on the case saw it as a major victory. But for the hundreds of players who filed the suit, the amount seemed inadequate.
Not only did they see it as not enough, they were also dissatisfied with the payout scale, which was based on the players’ age at the time of diagnosis in combination with time spent in the league. The case is currently in appellate court, and this new information could play a huge factor in the new outcome. After all, if the NFL finally acknowledges they are responsible for this crisis, should the league not pay more to adequately provide for its affected players?
But this could open an entirely new issue. If the league as a whole, not just one executive, accepts the fact they have been causing CTE, they may face other legal issues. Consider this: The research from Dr. McKee came out a few years ago. If the NFL, especially Dr. Mitchel Berger, willfully ignored this new evidence and continued as if there was not a real problem, could that be an issue of medical malpractice?
If so, it would likely fall under failure to diagnose or misdiagnosis. While there is no word yet on whether this argument will ever be used, it brings up an interesting point not just for the NFL, but for physicians across the nation who treat athletes. If they treat issues like concussions behind closed doors while pretending there is not an epidemic going on, should they be held liable for the growth of the problem? While that may be debated for years on end, one thing is certain: If the NFL has been lying to its players — ergo, its employees — about the dangers of their jobs, those players deserve rightful compensation.