When the NFL officially recognized two weeks ago that there is an "unequivocal link" between the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and head injuries in football, there were widespread cries of "it's about time" — but now several prominent figures in the game seem to be turning back the clock on the league's so-called "come to Jesus" moment.
In the wake of Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, making the admission in March about CTE, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called linking the neurological disorder to football as being "absurd," Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians complained that parents who don't allow their kids to play the game are "fools," and most recently, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay mockingly compared the dangers of playing football to taking aspirin.
"I believe this: that the game has always been a risk, you know, and the way certain people are," Irsay said in an interview with Sports Business Journal. "Look at it. You take an aspirin, I take an aspirin, it might give you extreme side effects of illness and your body … may reject it, where I would be fine. So there is so much we don’t know."
Irsay continued later: “To say you know all of a sudden there is a suicide or a murder, and to say, ‘Oh, that is football.’ I mean, that is completely ludicrous. It’s not just true. There is so much we don’t know. Whether you are dealing with Alzheimer’s, whether dealing with contact sports with concussions that can come into play, you know, we don’t know enough about it.”
Numerous former NFL players have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE, including Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012. Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who murdered his wife and then himself that same year, also suffered from the disease. CTE, which is the result of head trauma, is said to cause dementia, memory loss and depression, and some research has determined that it could lead to a propensity to commit acts of domestic violence. Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose discovery of the illness was portrayed in the Will Smith film "Concussion," has even speculated that infamous NFL icon O.J. Simpson may have the illness.
Last year, in an interview with TIME, Omalu claimed that more than 90 percent of the NFL's players have the brain disease, which so far can only be detected after death. "I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative," he said.
Meanwhile, the Colts owner's comments have sparked widespread criticism at an inopportune time for the league. Last week, The New York Times published an exposé — which the NFL has since refuted and demanded that the paper retract — revealing years of under-reporting of concussions in football and likened the league's recalcitrance on CTE to cigarette companies resistance to acknowledging a link between their product and cancer. And on Monday, yet another young player — 30-year-old Husain Abdullah — announced his premature retirement from the NFL due to safety concerns.
“There are numerous deciding factors in my decision, with personal health being foremost,” wrote the now-former Chiefs safety on Instagram. “Sitting for five weeks last year after suffering the fifth concussion of my career, I had a lot to contemplate. My goals moving forward are to be of benefit to my family, my community, my country and hopefully the world. Having a sound mind will be vital in accomplishing these goals.”
Ironically, in the midst of all the hoopla, embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is getting a safety award. This week he will be presented with the Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program Leadership in Sports Health, Safety & Research Award, for his role in increasing the number of athletic trainers in a school district in the Florida city — not his role in raising safety standards in the NFL.