The biggest story of the NFL off-season may not be a major trade acquisition or an iconic player's retirement, but rather the league's apparent 'come to Jesus' moment on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the limitations of Commissioner Roger Goodell's leadership.
As recently as three days before the Super Bowl, the NFL was formally refusing to acknowledge a link between CTE, an aggressive neurological disorder that has been discovered in several dozen deceased former players, and head injuries on the field of play. But on Monday, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president for health and safety policy, became the first league official to confirm a connection between CTE and football during a House Government and Commerce Committee round-table discussion.
“Certainly, Dr. McKee’s research shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE, so the answer to that question is certainly yes,” Miller said in reference to research by Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University. But that moment of clarity appears to have come too soon for the league. On Tuesday, the NFL began to back off Miller's remarks.
"He was discussing Dr. McKee's findings and made the additional point that a lot more questions need to be answered,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement regarding Miller's comments. “He said that the experts should speak to the state of the science.”
“We want the facts, so we can develop better solutions,” he added. “And that's why we're deeply committed to advancing medical research on head trauma, including CTE, to let the science go where the science goes. We know the answers will come as this field of study continues to advance.”
While the public has long seen a correlation between head injuries and the violent nature of the sport, the NFL finally admitting complicity on CTE had been seen as a breakthrough. The discovery of CTE has already been dramatized in the critically acclaimed film "Concussion," and a steady stream of high profile players posthumously diagnosed with the disease — including Frank Gifford and Ken Stabler — has only helped raise its profile in the nation's consciousness. Meanwhile, there are efforts underway to try to uncover the brain ailment in living patients.
There has been a lot of speculation that the league was stymieing efforts to research a correlation between CTE and football. The NFL was supposed to participate in a multimillion dollar study of the disease led by the National Institutes of Health, but their involvement ended late last year. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” reported at the time that the NFL cut ties with NIH after they learned that Robert Stern, a Boston University professor of neurology and neurosurgery who has been consistently critical of the league, would play a prominent role in the study. However, the NFL has disputed ESPN's story, with the league’s spokesman tweeting that the “NFL did not pull any funding. NIH makes its own decisions.” The NIH has also maintained that their research into links between football head trauma and lasting brain injury still enjoys the support of the NFL.
Meanwhile, also on Monday, news broke that the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) are in the midst of negotiating changes to Commissioner Goodell's off-the-field discipline powers. Goodell's decision making in this regard has been controversial for years, but the backlash to his punishments has reached a fever pitch over the last two seasons after he bungled his initial punishment of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic violence in 2014 and appeared to overreach with his 2015 suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in Deflate-gate. Both suspensions, as well as Goodell's controversial decision to suspend Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson amid charges of child abuse, were overturned on appeal.
"We’ve been talking about changes to the personal conduct policy since October and have traded proposals," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told The Wall Street Journal. "We looked at the league’s proposal for neutral arbitration. There is a common ground for us to get something done."
The NFL has confirmed that negotiations are taking place and the conversation will likely continue at annual league owners meetings in Florida next week.
Goodell won the ability to levy punishments as the sole arbiter in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA. According to The Sporting News, the NFLPA has proposed that he be replaced by three neutral judges with backgrounds in football on a panel which would determine what discipline is warranted in a case by case basis. Still, efforts to curtail Goodell's clout have come up short in the past.
"This has the feel of a PR rollout," Edge of Sports writer Dave Zirin told MSNBC on Tuesday. "They are pruning Roger Goodell's powers without enduring the media fallout and scrutiny. NFL owners are turning Goodell from Henry VIII to Prince Phillip."
Football fans will just have to wait until the new NFL season this coming fall to see if it's a whole new ballgame.
This story has been updated to reflect a new statement from the NFL.