There was a hint of reluctance, hesitation in his voice but the words came out nonetheless. Finally, the NFL has admitted there's a link between football and the brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The long-overdue admission came during a U.S. House of Representatives roundtable discussion. The House's Committee on Energy and Commerce met as Jeff Miller --- the NFL's senior V.P. for health and safety --- was asked questions by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Schakowsky asked Miller, directly, if there is a link between football and neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE.
"The answer to that question is certainly yes," Miller said.
Hear that exchange at around the 4:41 mark below:
Miller then pointed to the work of Dr. Ann McGee, a neuropathologist at Boston University who has diagnosed CTE in 90 of 94 former NFL players.
"I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to," Miller said, "is what that necessarily means, and where do we go from here with that information."
In a statement, the NFL said Miller's words do, indeed, reflect the league's opinion.
It's a sharp turn from everything NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and others have said publicly. For years, Goodell has avoided the issue. Admitting as such could, potentially, damage his brand. Repeatedly, the league has said it'd leave comment to doctors and the medical community. But public pressure has mounted through a string of early retirements and stories of ex-players like Junior Seau dealing with depression, dementia and worse later in life.
Goodell only made it worse last month at the Super Bowl when he said there's "risk in sitting on the couch." Also during Super Bowl week, Dr. Mitch Berger, who heads the NFL's committee on long-term brain injury, said there was no proven link between CTE and football.
This week's informal roundtable is a major change in tone.
McKee again asserted that there is "unequivocally" a link.
"We've seen it in 90 out of 94 NFL players whose brains we've examined," she said. "We've found it in 45 out of 55 college players and six out of 26 high school players. No, I don't think this represents how common this disease is in the living population, but the fact that over five years I've been able to accumulate this number of cases in football players, it cannot be rare. In fact, I think we are going to be surprised at how common it is."
And pressed again on the link, Miller said "yeah, sure" there was.
Responded Schakowsky: "Because we feel --- well, I feel --- that was not the unequivocal answer three days before the Super Bowl by Dr. Mitchel Berger."
Said Miller: "Well, I'm not gonna speak for Dr. Berger."
Miller wouldn't elaborate on his comments afterward but this is all at least a step in the right direction for a league that's been in denial for years.
This past year, The News examined the league's looming collision course of players' undying love to play this game and the very real, very damning science of CTE. More brains will reveal CTE, more players could retire early and now the league is admitting there's a link. Players of all ages must decide if it's worth it.
Players at the Super Bowl sure believe there's a balance. They do not fear for the NFL's future.
“We have to quit being as soft as we are,” Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith said then. “Men have done dangerous jobs since the beginning of time. Men choose to do dangerous jobs. It’s a conscious decision. We can definitely find more ways to protect each other out there on the field but nothing is 100 percent safe. Yeah, we have to find ways to protect guys but this game will live on.”
Smith views football as cathartic, a way to release rage in a constructive way.
“If you don’t give some guys – naturally born the way we are – this outlet, what else do you have out there in society?” he said. “There’s a reason for gladiators, there’s a reason for soldiers. There’s a reason for everything.”
Other players such as Cortland Finnegan and Shaq Thompson believed the NFL would find a way to survive over the long haul, with Thompson citing the growth of rugby-style tackling in the league. Still, it's a violent game. Concussions are practically inevitable. Click the link above for more.
This week, quietly, the NFL's admission was certainly a shift in tone, if not a total revelation.