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Congress puts brain injuries in spotlight

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Members of Congress want to find out whether there is a connection between football and brain injuries. They will hear testimony Wednesday from as many as 17 former players, executives and doctors on the issue.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith are among those set to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.

The hearing was called after a report showed former players had considerably higher rates of Alzheimer's disease than the rest of the population.

"There are a number of studies by qualified researchers that have shed light on the results of these type of injuries... [and] my understanding of them is that they are important and important to our players," said Smith, who announced the formation of a committee on concussions and traumatic brain injury. "I think we have to get this answer right, and we start getting that answer by embracing those studies."

The NFL-commissioned report seemed to back up several independent studies on the issue, but league officials have argued there is not enough reliable data to draw a conclusion. The NFL is conducting its own study of 120 players, with results available in the next several years.

Some medical experts have accused the NFL of glossing over the problem and said the league's study is likely to be biased. It is being run by Ira Casson, a co-chairman of the NFL's concussion committee, who has been generally dismissive of the connection between football and brain injuries.

Casson did not respond to requests to testify Wednesday and is not expected to appear.

"We testified before the committee two years ago on retired player benefits and look forward to further discussing these important matters and reviewing the work we have done to reduce and properly manage concussions and assist our retired players," the NFL said in a statement.

Other scheduled panelists include Baltimore Ravens team doctor Andrew Tucker, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers president Gay Culverhouse and ex-Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merrill Hoge, who retired after suffering a series of on-field concussions. Doctors and researchers from Boston University, the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University are also scheduled to testify.

"This issue affects not just NFL players but millions of high school and college football players as well," said Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat. "The hearing will, among other things, allow us to hear directly from the NFL, the players union and other interested parties concerning the impact and incidence of these injuries and what can be done to limit them and compensate the players and their families."

Smith sought to downplay any rift between the union and league on the issue and credited the NFL with changes to rules and policies to help prevent and diagnose head injuries. But he also called for the league to embrace any and all studies on the issue and be more forthcoming with medical data that might help shed light on any problems.

"This is not a battle between us and the league... but I don't have the type of job where I can just rest on the status quo," he said. "The first thought on my mind when we come to work every day is protection of our players."

The possible connection between brain injuries and football got considerable attention after the suicide of retired Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters at age 44 in 2006. Forensic pathologists said Waters' brain resembled that of an 85-year-old man's, with signs of early stages of Alzheimer's. Doctors from Boston University found five players who died before age 50 whose brains showed signs of degenerative problems.