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Goodell defends NFL policies on head injuries to Congress

  • By Associated Press
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WASHINGTON -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell didn't acknowledge a connection between head injuries on the football field and later brain diseases Wednesday while defending the league's policies on concussions before Congress.

That frustrated several members of the House Judiciary Committee, including the committee chairman, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, when Goodell told him the NFL isn't waiting for that debate to play out and is taking steps to make the game safer.

"I just asked you a simple question. What is the answer?" Conyers persisted.

Goodell's testimony
Charles Dharapak / Associated Press
Roger Goodell testifies on Capital Hill.

Statement of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to the House Judiciary Committee:

"I am Roger Goodell. Since becoming commissioner of the National Football League a little more than three years ago, 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.

"I want to review what we have done in the past three years, and make clear that we are not finished. Our initiatives generally for retired players include the following: Since I became commissioner, we have made a wide range of improvements in both the benefits and the administration of the disability plan. We have doubled the minimum benefit and lengthened the time within which players can apply for benefits. We have retained a new, independent medical director. We have reduced red tape, simplified the process for applicants and their families, and sped disability determinations. Each of these changes was made at our initiative. As we proceed with the current round of collective bargaining, we look forward to making further improvements in this plan.

"Apart from the disability plan, in 2006, we created the '88 Plan,' which provides up to $88,000 per year for any former player and his family who has dementia or Alzheimer's. Those player do not need to show that their condition is related to football.

"We have developed and funded new medical benefits for retirees, including programs for joint replacement surgery, cardiovascular and prostate cancer screening, spinal care, assisted living arrangements, and a discount card for prescription drugs. Retirees are eligible for these benefits at no cost to themselves.

"In each successive collective bargaining agreement since 1993, we have increased pension benefits and done so retroactively. We want that to continue, and as we negotiate with the NFLPA for a new agreement, the clubs have again identified retired player pensions as a specific priority and look forward to discussing our proposals with the union."

Goodell replied by saying a medical expert could give a better answer than he could. But some House members later complained that Dr. Ira Casson, chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions, hadn't testified.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., gave Casson some exposure anyway, playing a clip of a TV interview in which he denied evidence of a link between multiple head injuries in NFL players with brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's. Sanchez said that reminded her of tobacco companies denying a link between smoking and health damage in the 1990s.

Goodell testified alongside new NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, who said the union "has not done its best in this area. We will do better." Both men did agree to turn over players' medical records to the committee.

In addition, Conyers wants information on head injuries from the NCAA, high schools and medical researchers to better understand football's health risks.

Still, several Republicans questioned the point of the hearing. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said Congress' involvement in football would mean the end of the sport.

"We'd all be playing touch football," he said.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., whose husband played in the NFL, asked Goodell how the league was addressing the welfare of retired players during current collective bargaining negotiations.

Goodell said it's a "priority for the owners and players to take better care of our retired players," but Waters cut him off, demanding specifics.

"We've heard from the NFL time and time again -- you're always 'studying,' you're always 'trying,' you're 'hopeful,'" Waters said, pointing a finger in Goodell's direction. "I want to know what are you doing ... to deal with this problems and other problems related to injuries?"

When Goodell said talks between owners and players are in the early stages, Waters said it's time "for Congress to take a look at your antitrust exemption" and that she believes it should be removed.

A 1961 law grants professional sports leagues antitrust exemption for broadcasting. That has allowed the NFL to sign TV contracts totaling billions of dollars on behalf of all its teams, helping transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.

After Waters was done grilling Goodell, she walked to the back of the hearing room and greeted Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown with a hug. Other former NFL stars present included Willie Wood, who sat in his wheelchair, a few rows behind the witness table.

In his testimony, Goodell said the league has "reduced red tape, simplified the process for applicants and their families and sped disability determinations."

Several retired players testified at the hearing, including former fullback Merril Hoge, who said a series of concussions cost him his career. After his first concussion, he said he never saw a neurological doctor and was cleared to play five days later.

"What happened to me would not happen in the National Football League today," Hoge said. "That does not mean we are all the way there. We are on the way."

Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said NFL team doctors aren't advocates for the players and called for an independent neurologist to be on the sidelines.

Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said there is "growing and convincing evidence" that repetitive concussive and subconcussive hits to the head in NFL players leads to a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

"The public health risk is already here, and we cannot afford to wait any longer to make changes to the way we play sports," he said, calling for rule and technique changes.

Cantu's colleague at the center, Dr. Ann McKee, showed the committee images of brains of dead football players with CTE.

"We need to take radical steps" to change the way football is played, she said.

Dick Benson told the committee about the death of his 17-year-old son, Will, a high school quarterback in Austin, Texas, several weeks after a helmet-to-helmet hit in 2002. The following year, Benson founded the Will Benson Foundation for Sports Safety. He said the game needs to be changed to reduce physical contact, especially helmet-to-helmet contact.

"My one request is," he said, pausing to sob, "don't let it happen again."

Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber said he was concerned that high school players don't have the medical access that pros do.

"My ask of you is that you find a way to mandate that every high school athletic program has access to medical doctors who can diagnose, understand and treat concussions," he said.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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