For pro sports commissioners, there are few things less fun than testifying before Congress. They try to avoid it whenever possible, sending surrogates, submitting written statements or begging out of it altogether.
But there was Roger Goodell on Wednesday, head honcho of the NFL, sitting in front of a panel of lawmakers who demanded answers relating to football and brain injuries.
Do you believe, members of the House Judiciary Committee asked, that NFL players are at greater risk of suffering from brain diseases later in life?
There was a palpable breathlessness in the air. Would Goodell acknowledge a connection between football-induced concussions and brain problems? Or would he deny one exists?
His response was something in between.
"The medical experts would know better than I would," he said.
It was an answer that left some members of Congress unsatisfied, convinced that the league was turning a blind eye to numerous studies that suggested a link between concussion and brian disease. And it was an answer that rang hollow given the conspicuous absence of Dr. Ira Casson, the NFL's point man for its own ongoing concussion study.
"It sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies, pre-1990s, when they kept saying, 'Oh, there's no link between smoking and damage to your health,' " said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat.
Goodell even was unsteady on the question of whether the league had directly asked Casson to comply with lawmakers' request to have him testify, first claiming no, then later reading off a note that essentially said, "We'll get back to you on that."
Granted, this was not as significant as Mark McGwire saying, "I'm not here to talk about the past," when questioned by Congress about steroids in 2005. But for one of the first times, it appeared Goodell was not going to walk away from the hearing unscathed. Before Tuesday, the NFL had avoided public assaults from Congress, quite deftly allowing Major League Baseball to take the brunt of heat over the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sports. In 2007, the league took some heat over its treatment of retired players and its pension plan, but Goodell avoided testifying. And when all was said and done, much of the criticism was deflected to Gene Upshaw, the late union head.
Goodell insisted Tuesday the league is not waiting on definitive answers from the medical community, proceeding with rule changes and equipment improvements to make the game safer. And he agreed to hand over medical data that would allow Congress to conduct an independent review. But his lack of a direct answer on the key question was glaring.
"When the commissioner refuses to answer that question straight-up, that tells you one thing right there," said Cy Smith, an attorney who successfully sued the league for pension benefits on behalf of the late Mike Webster, a Hall of Famer who died in 2002 at age 50.
In Smith's view, the NFL is simply scared. It's hard, he said, for players to collect disability payments except in the first few years after retirement, and for the league to acknowledge a connection between football and dementia later in life could put it at risk for millions of dollars in additional benefit payments.
"They don't want to pay those costs," Smith said. "Both the league and the union have a responsibility here to treat players fairly and pay out the pensions they are contractually entitled to. It's not welfare. It's not charity."
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, for his part, has declined to get into a war of words with the league on the issue. But unlike Goodell, he has not downplayed recent studies on football and head injuries, instead choosing to welcome all research on the issue.
"I think we have to get this answer right, and we start by getting this answer right by embracing those studies, not even the ones that draw a conclusion but even the ones that say, 'We need further testing,' " Smith said.
It's unclear whether Congress will weigh in again on this issue. But in Round 1 of the debate, Goodell and the NFL walked away a little bit bruised.
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