A Steelers neurosurgeon who advises the NFL on head, neck and spine injuries told the NFL Network on Wednesday that football "has never been safer" and that youth football is safer than riding a bike or a scooter or using playground equipment. He also downplayed the risk of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, based on current data.
"I think the problem of CTE, although real, is it's being over-exaggerated and being extrapolated to youth football and to high school football," Dr. Joseph Maroon said. He added that CTE is a "rare phenomena."
"We came up with 63 total cases of CTE (in former NFL players) and in the last two years a few more," he said of research on the disease, a progressive degenerative brain disease related to head trauma. "But there have been 30-40 million kids who have played football during that period of time . . . Can we improve? Yes. We have to do better all the time to make it safer."
The interview was, in part, a reaction to news earlier in the week that 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is retiring. Borland told ESPN that he was leaving the game after one season and at age 24 to protect himself from the risk of future brain injuries.
"When an athlete is fearful of any injury, it's time to get out," Maroon said. "You can't play with apprehension in any sport and be as good as you can be. He obviously came to that conclusion himself . . . However, I really believe it's never been safer in terms of the sport."
Later in the day, while appearing on PFT Live, Jeff Miller, the league's senior vice president of health and safety policy, said Maroon's opinions "deserve respect" but are not NFL policy.
"Joe Maroon does not speak for the NFL, nor we for him," Miller said.