NFL forges ahead on concussion issue

Well, you have to admire his conviction, at least. Faced with intense grilling by the House Judiciary Committee in more hearings regarding concussions Monday, Dr. Ira Casson continued to frustrate committee members, current and former NFL players, the NFL Players Association and, presumably, the NFL.

Dr. Casson is a neurologist who was co-chairman of the NFL’s panel on head injuries. He was relieved of his duties in November – through a mutual decision with Commissioner Roger Goodell – when Congress turned up the heat on this issue. Much to the dismay of everyone in attendance Monday, Casson -- when given the opportunity to concede a proven connection between the head trauma of playing football and later brain disease or impaired function -- refused.

Casson, who was notably absent in previous hearings on the issue, appeared in front of the committee and, despite all the new initiatives being promulgated by the NFL and the enormous attention on the issue, continued to deny a causal link. He stuck to his oft-repeated phrasing of the lack of connectivity between the two, reading from a prepared statement: “There is not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football result in long-term brain damage.”

It was this mentality that caused the NFL embarrassment in Congress in October, when Goodell was grilled mercilessly by the committee and put in a defensive posture rare for the leader of the most successful sports league in the nation. The NFL was harshly criticized for its inaction and was even compared to the tobacco industry in its tactics. Following those hearings, things changed.

One of the changes was the parting of ways with Casson, who had led the NFL’s efforts in this area since 1994. After adding former player Merril Hoge and neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher to its concussion committee, the NFL is interviewing candidates for Casson’s previous position. Casson was a constant source of friction between the NFL and the NFLPA, and his steadfast (and continued) refusal to admit any link between football and brain disease frustrated the union’s own non-scientific data regarding former players.

As one union official told me in October, “Dr. Casson wouldn’t admit to a causal link if every player who ever played in the NFL showed up with Alzheimer’s.” Indeed, at yesterday’s hearings, Kyle Turley, who played many years in the NFL, discussed how he was cleared to play four days after a concussion. He also spoke about the long-term effects and took a few shots at Dr. Casson.

The NFL got the message from Congress. In November, Casson resigned, followed by new league guidelines for concussions, independent neurologists, PSAs, studies on safer equipment and practices, etc. And NFL spokesman Greg Aiello has admitted on behalf of the league, “It’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.”

Despite the continued assertions of Dr. Casson, it’s a new day in the NFL on this important issue. The league announced Monday after the hearing that there would be a medical conference on concussions in June with all teams required to attend.

There are new rules, regulations and requirements regarding concussions. There will be no more comparisons of the NFL to the tobacco industry. There will be no more repeated denials of a link between football impact and later brain illness. There will be no more words rather than action. And there will be no more Dr. Casson speaking for the NFL on this issue.

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