With that in mind, Goodell has gathered the league's physicians and trainers here today for a 1-day concussion symposium at the O'Hare Westin Hotel. This comes less than a month after Goodell announced new standards for concussion management that included mandatory baseline testing for all players and a "whistle-blower" system that allows anyone to anonymously report any incident in which a doctor is pressured to return a concussed player to play before he is ready.
The symposium will include presentations not only from the league's medical experts on concussions, but also from outside physicians and researchers who have disagreed with the findings of the NFL's committee on brain injury.
"There should be some very good dialogue and a variety of opinions," Goodell said. "We've invited people with all different backgrounds and different perspectives on this, including people who have been critical of us and some of our research and some of our findings.
"We want to make sure that we're having that kind of dialogue so that we can find answers. This is an area where there still aren't enough answers."
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The NFL has taken considerable heat recently for its reluctance to acknowledge a link between multiple concussions and long-term brain damage. Last month, Dr. Ira Casson, co-chairman of the league's committee on mild-traumatic brain injury (MTBI), said in an interview on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" that there is "no clear evidence" linking concussions to brain disorders such as depression, dementia, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Casson and his committee pooh-poohed a study of former NFL players earlier this year by the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Retired Athletes that reported players who suffered three or more concussions were three times more likely to suffer clinical depression than players with no concussions.
"The thing we're all a little concerned about is people jumping to conclusions," Goodell said. "Particularly conclusions that aren't based on medical facts."
To the league's credit, Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, the researcher who headed the UNC study, will be one of the speakers at today's symposium. So will Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurologist who has examined a number of retired NFL players, including former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, and believes multiple concussions can lead to permanent brain damage.
"The No. 1 point for us is to make sure that our players know that, when they're out there [on the field], medical issues are going to be the primary concern," Goodell said.
Agent Leigh Steinberg, who has lobbied for years for better diagnosis and treatment of concussions in the NFL and has hosted several concussion symposiums, has been encouraged by Goodell's concern over the issue.
"You have a new commissioner who has shown a new willingness to address this issue," he said. "Roger has shown an openness to re-examine the issue, which is laudatory."
Steinberg has represented hundreds of NFL players, including Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Young, who both suffered numerous concussions in their careers.
It was Aikman's concussion in the Cowboys' January 1994 NFC Championship Game win over Young's 49ers that prompted Steinberg to try and get the NFL to focus on the issue.
"I was sitting with Troy in his darkened hospital room and he asked me whether or not he had played that day," the agent said. "I told him that he had. Then he asked if he had played well. I told him that he had. Then he asked me if they had won and I told him they had.
"A couple of minutes later, he asked me the same questions again. Another 5 minutes passed and he asked the exact same questions again.
"It was a frightening experience. It made it clear how tender a hold the brain has over consciousness. It's one thing to know players will have aches and pains and difficulties when they turn 50 leaning over to pick up their children. It's another thing not to be able to identify their children."
As part of last year's collective-bargaining agreement, the league and the NFL Players Association formed the "88 Plan," named after Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, which provides financial assistance for care of players with dementia or Alzheimer's. But the league is not yet ready to publicly acknowledge a cause and effect between multiple concussions and brain damage.
"I think it's changing," Steinberg said. "It's like the Berlin Wall coming down. There is a sea change in the thinking regarding this issue. The dramatic nature of the studies being presented in the last year makes the medicine and science behind the extent of the crisis undeniable.
"I believe the league will respond, both from an ethical standpoint and because it's good business." *