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NFL acknowledges link between football brain trauma and CTE for first time. What now, NHL?

Matt Larkin
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Gary Bettman (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg) Author: The Hockey News

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NFL acknowledges link between football brain trauma and CTE for first time. What now, NHL?

Matt Larkin
By:

A high-ranking NFL official publicly acknowledged the link between football injuries and neurogenerative brain disease for the first time. What does that mean for the NHL and the concussion lawsuit?

It was a short, simple sentence, but it rocked the world of pro football Monday. As ESPN senior writer Steve Fainaru reports, during a concussion roundtable convened by the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Energy & Commerce, NFL senior vice-president of health and safety Jeff Miller was asked whether there is a link between brain trauma sustained playing football and neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Miller's response: "The answer to that question is certainly yes."

According to Fainaru, Miller's response was rooted in his assessment of findings from Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist from Boston University. She has diagnosed CTE in the brains of 176 people, including 90 of 94 former NFL players tested.

The statement from Miller was significant because it marked the first time an NFL official admitted the link between brain trauma and football. For years, the NFL had avoided taking a stance and preferred to let the medical community decide. As recently as Super Bowl week less than two months ago, Dr. Mitch Berger, who leads the league subcommittee on long-term brain injury, claimed there was still no established link between football and CTE. So it was quite the about-face for Miller to back Dr. McKee's findings publicly.

Not surprisingly, Miller's comments have already impacted the settlement between the league and the thousands of players who sued the NFL for allegedly concealing the link between football and brain disease. As Fainaru reports:

Hours after Miller's comments, a lawyer representing seven former players objecting to the proposed settlement of the concussion lawsuit against the NFL sent a letter to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The letter argued that Miller's acknowledgement of a link and of McKee's work reflects a "stark turn" from the league's position, underscoring the objectors' argument that CTE was not adequately addressed in the settlement. Attorney Steven Molo wrote that Miller's comments "directly contradict" the NFL's position in the case.

The settlement is on hold while the Third Circuit Court of Appeals considers the objections.

So why are you reading these words on The Hockey News website? You know what question comes next. How and will Miller's comments impact the NHL concussion lawsuit?

The plaintiffs claim is summarized as follows:

The plaintiffs generally allege that the NHL failed to warn its players of the short and long-term effects of repeated concussions and head trauma, failed to adequately care for its players after they received such injuries, and promoted and glorified unreasonable and unnecessary violence leading to head trauma.  Plaintiffs allege these actions and inactions by the NHL resulted in players suffering from, or increased the risk of contracting, serious brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s, and accelerated the speed and severity of players’ post-retirement mental decline. 

It's fair to assume NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will face public scrutiny in light of Miller's comments. Bettman, remember, famously stated last spring that there was no concrete link between concussions and CTE:

“From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one necessarily leads to the other," he told reporters at the time. "I know there are a lot of theories, but if you ask people who study it, they tell you there is no statistical correlation that can definitively make that conclusion.”

From a public relations standpoint, Bettman will face pressure to backtrack on that stance. If concussions caused by football are proven to correlate with CTE, it's easy and obvious to make the same connection between hockey concussions and CTE. So, sure, Bettman might be wise to amend his position in a hurry.

About that, though. He can safely do so, because the crux of the concussion lawsuit is not about what the NHL knows now – or what the NHL is in the process of learning. It's all about what the NHL already knew. It alleges the NHL failed to warn its players about the dangers of concussions. Whether that can be proven is a question for another day. But anything the NFL says doesn't further implicate wrongdoing on the NHL's part. It makes for ugly PR if the NHL doesn't change its position, but nothing more.

UPDATE, 8:48 p.m. ET: THN.com reached out to the NHL concussion lawsuit plaintiffs for their thoughts on Miller's comments and received the following statement from the plaintiffs' co-lead counsel:

“The time has come for the NHL to do the right thing for its former players and finally admit and warn about the link between repeated head trauma and long-term, neuro-degenerative disorders. While the NFL, after intense public pressure, has finally admitted publicly that there is ‘certainly’ a link, the NHL, to this day, continues to deny that there is any long-term danger associated with suffering repeated concussions and sub-concussive blows, even in the face of compelling medical evidence. The NHL has a duty to protect its players and hockey players of all ages and provide them with factual and accurate information about the long-term consequences of repetitive head injuries. We hope that the NFL’s statements and public acknowledgment of this public health crisis will compel the NHL to follow suit.”

THN.com reached out to the NHL for comment as well but has not received a response as of this time.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

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NFL acknowledges link between football brain trauma and CTE for first time. What now, NHL?