NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: "If I had a son, I'd...

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: "If I had a son, I'd love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get." Credit: Getty Images / Mike Lawrie

Harry Carson was heartened to see the admission from NFL senior vice president for health and safety Jeff Miller acknowledging a link between playing football and developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during a roundtable discussion on Monday before a congressional committee.

“I feel good knowing that he finally admitted it,” the former Giants’ linebacker, who dealt with repeated concussions during his 13-year career with the team, as well as his earlier playing days in high school and college. “When he acknowledged it, I thought it was a really great day for everybody, because this is not just an NFL issue, it is really a football issue and even more than that. It’s a contact sports issue. It’s ice hockey. It’s wrestling. It’s soccer — any sport where there are multiple blows to the head in the course of play.”

Miller’s comments during a question-and-answer session are seen by many as a sea change from the NFL, which has been reluctant to link the sport of football with CTE. Yet it remains to be seen whether his remarks are the beginning of a new direction the league will take regarding the effects of traumatic brain injury related to the countless hits players experience during their careers. Interestingly, Miller declined to comment to reporters after the session with Congress, and he was not made available on Wednesday when Newsday contacted the NFL to follow up with him. Miller, who is normally readily accessible to discuss health and safety matters, has not been interviewed he spoke to the committee.

“I think it’s a positive, but my sense is [Miller’s remarks] weren’t planned,” said Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and a former college football player. “It doesn’t really matter what the NFL thinks, because the science has moved past the NFL. But it is an important day, and I don’t think the NFL can take this back.”

Carson was especially gratified to see that it was Miller who expressed his opinion to Congress. The two had met at a recent event in Arizona where Carson was the keynote speaker and share his experiences with concussion. Carson said he spoke with Miller afterward, and that the NFL vice president was appreciative of his remarks.

“That’s the way I look at it, and for those of us who played in the NFL, it’s something that we all knew,” Carson said of the link between playing football and the prevalence of CTE in many deceased former players. An ongoing study by Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee has found CTE in the brains of 90 of 94 former players that have been examined. “[The NFL should] go ahead and acknowledge it, because it’s pretty obvious when you’ve got 94 brains and 90 have shown evidence of CTE. What that says is if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and jumps on your lap and say, ‘I’m a duck,’ it’s a duck.”

So where does the NFL go from here, if in fact the league is willing to publicly acknowledge a link to CTE?

“You’re going to take a hit, so just acknowledge it and get it out,” Carson said. “At some point down the line, reduced participation among kids playing football might impact your talent pool, but at least be honorable and say what everybody knows, especially the players, and find a way to help the players who never got the memo that playing football might be hazardous to your neurological health.”

It will be interesting to see how NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reacts to Miller’s comments, because the commissioner has consistently indicated that he wants to let medical science and research determine the facts. Miller’s remarks were seen as an acknowledgment linking football and CTE, but Goodell hasn’t previously been as direct. He rankled many in February when he defended risks associated with playing football at his Super Bowl press conference that “there’s risk in life. There’s risk sitting on the couch.”

A day earlier, at a health and safety news conference led by Miller, Dr. Mitch Berger, a member of the league’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, refused to draw a definitive link between football and degenerative brain disorders, including CTE. Nowinski, who also attended the news conference, met with reporters afterward and said he was flabbergasted by those remarks, accusing Berger of being “intentionally misleading” and accusing the NFL of acting in a similar fashion as tobacco companies when they had previously denied the harmful effects of smoking.

Nowinkski was also upset by the NFL’s unwillingness to fully fund a research project at Boston University on brain injury. The NFL has denied removing the funding, but ESPN reported that documents indicated the league had a problem with one of university’s researchers, Dr. Robert Stern, who has been critical of the league. The National Institutes of Health subsequently provided the remainder of the funding for the $30 million project.

“It’s hard to know what the NFL’s strategy is any more,” Nowinski said. “Let’s not forget that we’re only three months removed from the NFL trying to withhold $16 million from a study (on CTE at Boston University) and lied about it multiple ways. The important thing is that they don’t retract (Miller’s) statement so that the football community can at least come to terms with the connection between playing football and developing CTE.”

Miller’s comments may or may not impact the status of settlements talks for an ongoing lawsuit brought by thousands of retired players. An initial $765 million settlement was rejected as being insufficient to cover the potential benefits for former players suffering from neurological problems. A subsequent settlement was reached, however some former players have challenged that agreement.

Attorney Steven Molo wrote on Tuesday in a letter to the federal appeals court in Philadelphia that Miller’s comments are a cause for concern. The newly revised settlement, valued at around $1 billion, does not cover future cases of CTE.

“The settlement’s failure to compensate present and future CTE is inexecusable,” Molo wrote.

NFL attorney Paul Clement responded in a written statement to the court that Miller’s remarks are consistent with what the NFL has previously stated.

“Mr. Miller’s statement to the U. S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy & Commerce roundtable discussion is consistent with NFL positions in court and otherwise,” Clement wrote. “The NFL has previously acknowledged studies identifying a potential association between CTE and certain football players, including Dr. McKee’s work, to which the NFL has contributed funding. Conspicuously omitted from Mr. Molo’s letter is any reference to either Mr. Miller’s comments on the limited knowledge of the ‘incidence or the prevalence’ of CTE or the District Court’s express finding that the scientific community indisputably acknowledges that the causes of CTE remain unknown and the subject of extensive medical and scientific research.”

Florida-based sports attorney Daniel Wallach said Miller’s remarks may ultimately have some impact on the concussion case settlement.

“It may have limitations in this particular settlement, because this isn’t before the appellate court,” Wallach said. “But the bell can’t be un-rung on this, and I believe it does underscore the unfairness of the settlement. The objectors have a strong claim that the settlement is unreasonable. I don’t believe the court can turn a blind eye to this.”

Wallach said it is possible that the case may be remanded — or returned — to Judge Anita S. Brody, who presided over the settlement talks.

“Human nature dictates that [Miller’s remarks] have an effect,” Wallach said. “It was a terrible settlement to begin with. It was pennies on the dollar, compared to what the NFL makes. The NFL got off cheaply here. As a judge, I would be concerned about the expeditiousness of the settlement.”