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NFL Acknowledges Link Between Playing Football And CTE


At a congressional roundtable yesterday, the National Football League's top health and safety officer admitted something that the league had refused to acknowledge. When asked if there was a link between football-related head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, Jeff Miller said this.


JEFF MILLER: The answer to that question is certainly yes.

SIEGEL: That yes contrasts with what the NFL said just a few weeks ago before the Super Bowl. An official then said there was no established link. We call up the member of Congress who asked Miller that question, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and I asked her if Miller's remarks signaled an important change by pro football.

JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Yes. It was a very important admission. But before I had asked Mr. Miller the question, I asked the same question of Dr. Ann McKee, who is a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University, and she has done a good deal of research. And 90 out of the 94 brains that they had examined - and the only way to do it, obviously, is after people are dead - showed that football players had CTE.

SIEGEL: But just to be clear, the stunning numbers that Dr. McKee produced in her research of how many of these brains showed CTE, that wasn't a random sampling of former NFL players. Those were - these had been players for whom there had been some suspicion some kind of injury had been sustained.

SCHAKOWSKY: Yes, that's correct.

SIEGEL: What's Congress's role in this? Let's say everyone stipulates to the fact that if you play a lot of football, you're at risk of some kind of brain injury. What do you guys do about that?

SCHAKOWSKY: You know, one of the things that we might look at is the relationship of professional football with youth sports and the kind of changes that may need to be made. I don't know that they necessarily need to be legislated. But for example, with soccer - up to age 10 right now, youth soccer has said that no headers would be allowed, which can cause repeated brain trauma. Though it may be somewhat minor, it could accumulate.

SIEGEL: But when I asked you about Congress's role here, you set aside legislation. You said perhaps not legislation. If there actually is a threat to public health and safety and it affects so many - mostly young men, but also some women - why wouldn't there be some room for legislation?

SCHAKOWSKY: No, there may be. There may be a role for the Congress. I certainly wouldn't rule this out. But I think even this roundtable has had an impact on what's going to happen going forward having gotten this admission from Mr. Miller at the NFL. So there are all kinds of ways to change policy.

SIEGEL: It has been pointed out that Mr. Miller, after saying that the answer to that question is certainly yes, he added, but there are questions. And I guess some of the questions are, you know, how much higher is the rate of CTE among people who play football than among people who don't play football or who do other things? Is it possible here that we've made too much of his answer to your question?

SCHAKOWSKY: I don't think so. I think that his response, as I said, was after Dr. McKee had talked about her research showing that 90 out of 94 of the brains that were subjected to the research after the death of the players. It seems certainly the evidence is very, very compelling. And all I asked was is there a link? And I think it's pretty hard to say that there is no link when you have the kind of evidence that she has found. And she said it was unequivocal, that the link was unequivocal.

SIEGEL: Was the tone of the roundtable - in addition to this one remark from Jeff Miller, was it - did it strike you as fairly constructive about dealing with this problem of brain injury?

SCHAKOWSKY: I thought it was, but I think the emphasis was on research - which of course we have to have, but we're talking about research that may not have a conclusion for five to seven years. And so in the meantime, what does that mean for all those youth athletes, the young kids that are going out on Friday nights or the junior high kids that are continually knocking their heads around?

And so the question is, is some action required in advance of the final research that is done on this? And I would say yes, that we should err on the side of caution. When it comes to youth sports, we ought to make some changes - that we have to do serious thinking about how much we should subject our children to things that could cause these degenerative brain injuries.

SIEGEL: Well, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, thanks for talking with us today.

SCHAKOWSKY: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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