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Congress Holds Hearing on Link Between Football and Brain Injury

On Wednesday, Congress held a hearing on the legal issues relating to head injuries sustained by professional football players. Testimony was heard from Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, as well as various physicians, retired football players, and others with expertise in the subject.

In his opening statement, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers (D-Mich.), observed that over the last several years, an increasing number of retired professional football players have developed long-term memory and cognitive diseases, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (also known as “CTE").

Congressman Conyers further noted that reducing the long term mental and cognitive health risks from playing football was important not just for the future well-being of NFL players, but the safety of millions of football players at the college, high school, and youth levels playing in leagues that tend to follow the lead of the NFL when it comes to such medical questions as how to handle players who suffer concussions during football games.

Conyers then noted that:

  • there appears to be growing evidence that playing football may be linked to long-term brain damage;
  • the NFL largely denies any linkage between playing football and long-term brain injuries; and
  • the absence of a consensus on how to respond to the growing incidence of long term cognitive health problems suffered by former NFL players.

As a first step, Congressman Conyers requested that the the NFL, the NFL Players Association, all relevant medical researchers, the NCAA, and the National Federation of State High Schools Association make their relevant medical records available to Congress for review and analysis.

Following the hearing, Goodell, and NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith, agreed to turn over players' medical records to the House Judiciary Committee.

The issue is an important one for parents to follow due to studies showing that every year, as many as 1 in 10 high school football players has a concussion (according to Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is lead author of the National Athletic Trainers' Association position statement on concussion management).

Mark Lovell, director of the sports medicine concussion program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has begun to collect data on long-term consequences of high school football concussions. In the meantime, he says, players, coaches and parents must learn to recognize the symptoms of a concussion, and be ready to pull affected players out of competition until a health professional clears them to play again. Further, players should not return to action until their brains heal, because it's dangerous to get a second concussion when the brain is still recovering from the first one.

Update: The Congressional inquiry eventually led the league to begin a study on concussions and traumatic brain injuries in players – see N.F.L. To Study Concussions and Brain Injuries.

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