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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

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And I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in California.

A life and death issue, that's how a congressional committee chairman described it today as his panel took up the matter of football head injuries and their long-term effects on the brain. Members of Congress heard from medical experts, from former professional football players and from NFL executives. And while consensus was elusive, there was a general feeling that a sport known for its violent collisions somehow has to be made safer.

NPR's Tom Goldman has our report.

TOM GOLDMAN: The suspected link between football head injury and brain problems has been the subject of great debate, and it played out again at today's hearing. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell under direct questioning wouldn't acknowledge a link. None of the members of the NFL medical committee on concussions, which has famously discounted independent studies showing a link, was there to testify. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We reported that no members of the NFL medical committee on concussions attended the hearing. That was incorrect. Andrew Tucker, the team doctor for the Baltimore Ravens, testified. Tucker is also a member of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. Several members of that committee have generated controversy with public statements discounting research that indicates a link between football head injuries and later brain illness. None of those other committee members testified before the hearing.]

Brain trauma expert Dr. Robert Cantu was there and he answered the question about a direct link this way.

Dr. ROBERT CANTU (Neurosurgeon, Boston University School of Medicine): Yes, I think there's cause and effect. It's not unique to the NFL, though.

GOLDMAN: There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that something is amiss in many former football players. George Martin, the executive director of the NFL's Alumni Association, testified today about a player and a personal friend. After 10 NFL seasons as a star running back, Martin said the friend was leading a vigorous life of retirement.

Mr. GEORGE MARTIN (Executive Director, NFL Alumni Association): Except for one fateful day after returning from a business trip, he simply forgot where he parked his car. This incident happened only two short years ago. However, within the span of 24 months, this once vibrant, hyperactive individual has been reduced to a mere shell of his former self and with each passing day slips further and further away from the dynamic personality that we all once knew him to be.

GOLDMAN: Commissioner Goodell told the panel that stories like this and many others are of critical importance. But in the most contentious moment of the hearing, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters interrupted Goodell and threatened stern action against the league.

Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California): I think it's time for the Congress of the United States to take a look at your anti-trust exemption. I think that you're a, what, $8 billion organization who have not taken seriously your responsibility to the players. The only question is what are you going to do? Are you going to pay for it?

GOLDMAN: Goodell didn't answer because Waters used all her time for the stinging lecture. Earlier in the hearing, the commissioner did say that the league has made improvements in pension, disability and medical benefits for retirees. While the NFL was center stage, there was plenty of talk about the importance of addressing the issues at lower levels of football where players take their cues from the NFL.

Former NFL running back Merril Hoge stressed the need for head injury education for parents, for youth coaches. Hoge retired early because of traumatic brain injuries. He related his own experience as a youth coach. One of his players, a kid named Griffin, suffered a head injury. Hoge asked Griffin's older brother Jake to take Griffin aside and monitor him.

Mr. MERRIL HOGE (Former NFL Running Back): Well, after five minutes, Jake ran up to him and he said, Griff's ready to go back in. I'm, like, no. Griff is done playing. The caution and concern that I have there is Jake could very easily be a head coach in our youth program. And he was willing to put his own brother back on the football field, purely out of ignorance.

GOLDMAN: With all the attention focused on head trauma and brain illness, it will be harder to plead ignorance in the future. There still are studies to complete, older players to compensate and young players to protect and questions about how you effect change in a game that traditionally embraces and rewards aggression and violence - a game that, at the highest and most violent level, remains America's number one spectator sport.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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