WASHINGTON -- NFL leaders told a House committee Wednesday that they will cooperate with the panel's plan to review data regarding the rate and severity of brain injuries suffered by football players, saying more research is needed to determine if there is a direct link between head injuries suffered while playing the sport and brain disease later in life.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said during the hearing that "we need an expeditious independent review of all the data," and asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, if they would share medical information with the committee.
"Absolutely yes," Goodell said, and Smith agreed.
Conyers scheduled the hearing to examine the sport's reaction in dealing with findings by some medical experts that repeated concussions and brain trauma suffered by players can produce an increased risk of dementia and other memory-related diseases later in life.
"The serious issues presented by today's hearing involve matters of life and death," Conyers said. "They go to the heart of one of our nation's most popular and profitable sports. And equally important, they affect millions of players of all ages and their families. So the sooner we can get to the bottom of these issues, the better."
Several lawmakers said they don't believe that legislative action on the issue is warranted. But differing views also were expressed. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., questioned Goodell sharply about what the league is doing for retired players. She said the league has "not taken seriously your responsibility to players" and urged Congress to consider repealing the sport's exemption from federal antitrust laws.
Goodell said the league has made significant rule changes and is educating players about the possible effects of concussions. "We want to make sure our game is safe, and we're doing everything we possibly can for our players now," he said.
Conyers asked Goodell if there is a link between playing in the NFL and suffering a significant brain injury with long-term effects. Goodell said that medical experts could answer the question better than he could.
Conyers then asked the same question of neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University.
"I think there's cause and effect," Cantu said, adding that the long-term health consequences of concussions suffered by athletes is "not unique to the NFL."
"The public health risk is already here and we cannot afford to wait any longer to make changes to the way we play sports," Cantu said.
Cantu said that although a recent study commissioned by the NFL, showing that former players reported suffering from dementia and other memory-related diseases at a higher rate than the general public, was "highly flawed," it served a significant purpose by "increasing public awareness of this important issue."
David Weir, the lead author of the NFL-commissioned study, told the panel that "we can't draw a conclusion, and no responsible scientist would do so." A follow-up study is to be conducted, Weir said.
Goodell said he had met recently with Cantu to discuss the issue and afterward appointed former coach and broadcaster John Madden to head a committee to study concussions and other health issues affecting football.