Panelists Debate Football's Link to Brain Damage

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Members of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Detroit Monday on the links between football injuries and brain disease. Dr. Ira Casson, a neurologist and former co-chairman of the NFL's panel on head injuries, denied a conclusive link between football and long-term brain damage. A co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute testified that it's been shown that repeated blows to the head cause damage.

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Head injuries sidelined two Miami Dolphins quarterbacks in a game this past Sunday. It's the latest in a series of high-profile incidents involving football head injuries. There are worries about the long-term effects of those injuries. The House Judiciary Committee held a special hearing yesterday in Detroit. Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports.

SARAH CWIEK: Members of the House Judiciary Committee say it's appropriate for Congress to investigate the NFL's concussion policies because those policies set the standard for all of football, from peewee on up.

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that heavy contact sports like football can cause long-term brain damage. And football has been rocked by a series of concussion-related scandals recently. Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen named the latest: the firing of Texas Tech coach Mike Leach after he allegedly disciplined a concussed player by making him stand in a dark shed.

Representative STEVE COHEN (Democrat, Tennessee): You should be sent to the neurosurgeon, not to the shed.

CWIEK: The committee, yesterday, heard from a wide range of stakeholders, including leading researcher Bennet Omalu, co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University. Omalu studies the brain tissue of ex-football players, and says he diagnosed the first case of what he calls chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 2002.

Omalu says repeated blows to the head cause proteins to accumulate in brain cells, and can manifest as a unique type of dementia. But Dr. Omalu says it's not just the spectacular blows that cause CTE. It's also the heavy contact that comes with the game.

Dr. BENNET OMALU (Co-director, Brain Injury Research Institute, West Virginia University): Soft concussions or blows to the head which may not manifest with incapacitating symptoms are equally as important as concussions.

CWIEK: But Dr. Omalu's research isn't universally accepted. His testimony was refuted by fellow panelist Ira Casson, a neurologist and former co-chairman of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. Casson resigned that position in November, after the NFL Player's Association accused him of bias as he continues to deny a conclusive link between football and long-term brain damage. But Dr. Casson says he stands by that research.

Dr. IRA CASSON (Neurologist): Despite current harsh criticism from the media and others, I will continue to follow the evidence. My allegiance is to scientific truth.

CWIEK: Casson says his position on football head injuries has been skewed in the media and by members of Congress for what he calls political reasons. But Congressman Steve Cohen says without congressional action, the NFL wouldn't be taking concussions as seriously.

Rep. COHEN: So isn't politicalization a little bit more important, just like airing on the side of caution and lives in the balance, rather than waiting for the ultimate, perfect scientific data? And how many more football players might have brain damage?

CWIEK: There are other problems for policymakers. Neurologists don't even agree on what exactly constitutes a concussion. And then there's football's rough and tough culture. Reggie McKenzie played college and pro football in the 1960s and '70s and says back then, some players wouldn't remember how a game had ended until they saw the score the next day.

Mr. REGGIE MCKENZIE (Former NFL player): I've been there. That has happened to me. So, yeah, I'm here because, yeah, I'm concerned not only about the young people that's coming after me, but I'm also concerned about Reggie Mackenzie.

CWIEK: McKenzie says possible long-term brain damage is a growing concern among players. The NFL Players Association now wants the league to release the most recent concussion data, something it argues is crucial for further research.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.

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