NFL commissioner Roger Goodell declined to acknowledge a link between football-related concussions and brain problems later in life Wednesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill but defended the league's record on improving player safety.
During often tense questioning from members of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodell agreed to hand over medical records to lawmakers who are seeking to determine whether there is a link between head injuries and brain diseases. DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, also agreed to the request.
"I can think of no issue to which I have devoted more time and attention than the health and well-being of NFL players and particularly our retired players," Goodell said.
Some lawmakers accused the NFL of ignoring studies that suggest football players are at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease and other brain problems.
"I'm concerned that the NFL has this blanket minimizing of this problem," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, California Democrat. She compared the situation to the tobacco industry's denial of the health effects of cigarettes.
The issue of head injuries in football has earned attention in recent years because of cases involving former players. In 2006, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide at age 44 after suffering from depression, and an autopsy showed his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old man. In 2002, Mike Webster, a former lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, showed signs of dementia and other brain problems before dying at age 50.
A 2007 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina showed a strong correlation between concussions and depression among former NFL players. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University found severe brain damage in six former players who are now dead.
Cy Smith, an attorney with the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder who successfully sued the NFL to obtain disability payments for Webster and his family, said in an interview that the league is ignoring the severity of this problem.
"You have the commissioner, Goodell, refusing to really answer the question as to whether playing pro football creates an increased risk of brain injury," he said. "The evidence is very strong that it does from all kinds of different studies and analyses and, frankly, common sense."
A study by the University of Michigan commissioned by the NFL suggested players were at greater risk for Alzheimer's and other conditions, but Goodell and the study's author said the results do not show a definitive link and that more research is needed.
The NFL is conducting a study of former players, with results expected to be published in the next several years. Some lawmakers criticized the study because it is being conducted under the supervision of Dr. Ira Casson, who has said scientific data has not proved a connection between concussions and brain disease in NFL players. Casson did not appear to testify Wednesday.
"There are a number of really great questions I would have loved to ask him," Sanchez said.
Goodell said the league has moved to make the game safer, pointing to updated rules governing helmet-to-helmet hits and improvements in how concussions are diagnosed and treated. But Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said players are too easily encouraged to play with concussions and that team doctors are pressured to allow players back on to the field before they are ready.
"You can't leave it in the hands of the team physician to make the decision," he said. "And players are in a position where they will not self-report, because they need the money."
House members heard a wide range of testimony from doctors, former players and NFL executives, many of whom urged Congress to get involved to protect players at the high school and youth levels. But lawmakers were split on whether the government should be involved at all.
"We cannot legislate the elimination of injuries without legislating the elimination of the sports themselves," said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and the committee's ranking minority member. "The NFL does not need Congress to referee this issue."