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NFL Official Acknowledges Link Between Football And Brain Disease


A top NFL executive made a startling acknowledgement yesterday on Capitol Hill. Jeff Miller, the league's executive vice president for health and safety, said yes, there is a link between football and the devastating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The disease is associated with memory loss, depression and dementia. But this is the first time that an NFL official has seemingly accepted that football is linked to CTE. Joining us is ESPN reporter Steve Fainaru. Good morning.

STEVE FAINARU: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, you were at this hearing yesterday in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Tell us precisely what happened.

FAINARU: Well, this hearing was - it's not even a hearing really. It was described as a concussion roundtable that was organized by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. It was billed as a sort of scientific discussion. But in the middle of it, Jan Schakowsky, the Illinois congresswoman, asked both Jeff Miller, the head of health and safety for the NFL, and Ann McKee, who's a neuropathologist for Boston University, whether there's a link between football and CTE, whether it's been established. And Ann McKee, who has done more research on this topic than any person alive, answered unequivocally yes. And then Schakowsky turned to Jeff Miller, and she asked the same question. And Miller said, certainly yes. And this was quite surprising, in part because the NFL for years has basically punted on this question. They've never really come close to acknowledging that football can cause brain damage. And that question has been the center of a class action lawsuit against the league, a lot of really bad publicity that the league has endured for years. And so I think for people who have followed this, it's really quite surprising.

MONTAGNE: Now, did Jeff Miller of the NFL - did he try walk this back at all after he said it?

FAINARU: Yeah. Almost immediately he began to sort of qualify it and say, you know, we don't know what the risk factors are. We don't know how pervasive this is, which is true. But then Schakowsky stopped him and said, is there a link? And he said, yes, sure. You know, one of the things that I think is really quite surprising about this is six weeks ago, during Super Bowl week, Dr. Mitch Berger, who's a neurosurgeon who heads NFL subcommittee on long-term brain disease, answered no to the exact same question, whether there was a link between - an established link between football and CTE. And so now you have publicly this, you know, apparent contradiction, where you have the lead NFL official on health and safety acknowledging that there's a link. And the doctor who helps oversee their policymaking on this issue saying no. And so, you know, people are kind of wondering what this means. I mean, one of the things that was really interesting that happened was right - within minutes of Miller making these statements, lawyers who are representing people who are objecting to the settlement of the class action lawsuit that was filed by the NFL immediately filed a brief saying that this contradicts what the NFL's position has been in that case.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, what do you expect the fall-out or even the legal consequences to be?

FAINARU: I think it's really hard to know. You know, and it's hard to know sort of what position the NFL is going to take at this point. You know, you have different things being said by different people. The NFL in court has said that it was unclear for many years, you know, what the connection was. And now you have the leading health and safety official saying yes, there's certainly a link.

MONTAGNE: The ESPN's Steve Fainaru, thanks for joining us.

FAINARU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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