Better Public Understanding of CTE May Follow NFL Acknowledgment of Link

By Paul Cutler, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Law practices all over the country, including MRJ, have observed an increase in the frequency of claims of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after car accidents and other isolated incidents of trauma. This is not surprising given the recent increase in coverage of the condition in news media, and the NFL’s acknowledgement last month of a link between football and CTE won’t stem the tide of claims. That acknowledgement also won’t impact future research, according to Boston University CTE Center co-director Robert Cantu, but it could lead to better understanding of the condition by the general public and, by extension, juries. The disease is linked to repetitive sub-concussive trauma over time, and at present it can only be diagnosed at autopsy.

The description by NFL Senior Vice President for Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller of football and degenerative brain disorders such as CTE as being “certainly” linked is thought to be the first such acknowledgment by a league official, and came while Mr. Miller was participating in a congressional round-table. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later affirmedMr. Miller’s statement through a spokesman, calling it consistent with the league’s position.

The NFL has contributed funding to studies of CTE and its link to football, but if it contributes directly to future CTE-associated research, it will likely do so under far greater scrutiny than it faced when it previously sponsored concussion research. On the heels of the league’s CTE acknowledgement, the New York Times published an investigation which alleged serious flaws in the peer-reviewed concussion research sponsored by the NFL. That body of research, which studied concussions diagnosed by team physicians from 1996 to 2001, produced findings which broadly downplayed football’s concussion risk. After comparing the data from all 13 published studies to team injury reports and news articles, however, the Times found that more than 100 concussions which occurred during the period of study were omitted from the analysis. Because the risk calculations were based on total games played during the study period, regardless of whether teams submitted data, these omissions made concussions appear to have occurred less frequently than they actually did. The investigation also alleges that the authors of the NFL studies published their work over the objections of peer reviewers.

The NFL has in recent years made numerous rule changes specifically aimed at reducing head injuries. Beginning in 2010 the NFL expanded rules to protect defenseless players (a term defined exhaustively in the NFL rulebook but which broadly means unable to prepare for or evade an incoming hit due to being in the process of passing, receiving, or kicking). Starting in 2013, the NFL also gave independent neurologists on the sidelines the ability to stop play if necessary to ensure possibly-concussed players are removed from game action. On March 21 of this year, it was announced that defenseless player protection will be expanded further in the 2016 season to prohibit blindside hits to the head.