WASHINGTON — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would not acknowledge a connection between head injuries on the football field and later brain diseases while defending the league's policies on concussions before Congress.
Under sometimes-contentious questioning from lawmakers — and suggestions about reconsidering the league's lucrative antitrust exemption — Goodell sat at a witness table Wednesday alongside NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith.
Both men agreed to turn over players' medical records to the House Judiciary Committee.
Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., asked Goodell whether he thinks there's an injury-disease link. Goodell responded that the NFL isn't waiting for that debate to play out and is taking steps to make the game safer.
"I just asked you a simple question. What is the answer?" persisted Conyers.
Goodell replied by saying a medical expert could give a better answer than he could.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., whose husband played in the NFL, asked Goodell how the league was addressing the welfare of retired players during current collective bargaining negotiations with the union.
Goodell said that it's a "priority for the owners and players to take better care of our retired players," but Waters cut him off, demanding specifics.
"We've heard from the NFL time and time again — you're always 'studying,' you're always 'trying,' you're 'hopeful,'" Waters said, pointing a finger in Goodell's direction. "I want to know what are you doing … to deal with this problems and other problems related to injuries?"
When Goodell said that talks between owners and players are in the early stages, Waters said it's time "for Congress to take a look at your antitrust exemption" and that she thinks it should be removed.
A 1961 law grants professional sports leagues antitrust exemption for broadcasting. That has allowed the NFL to sign TV contracts totaling billions of dollars on behalf of all its teams, helping transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.
Dick Benson told the committee about the death of his son, Will, a high school quarterback in Texas, several weeks after a helmet-to-helmet hit in 2002. The following year, Benson founded the Will Benson Foundation for Sports Safety. He said the game needs to be changed to reduce physical contact, especially helmet-to-helmet contact.
Sobbing, he said, "Don't let it happen again."
In addition to medical records from the NFL and its union, Conyers wants information on head injuries from the NCAA, high schools and medical researchers to better understand football's health risks.
"We need an expeditious and independent review of all the data," Conyers said, calling the problem a "life and death" issue that warrants federal scrutiny.
"I say this not simply because of the impact of these injuries on the 2,000 current players and more than 10,000 retirees associated with the NFL and their families," Conyers said. "I say it because of the effect on the millions of players at the college, high school and youth levels."
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the panel, said that while Congress can highlight the consequences of playing football, "the NFL does not need Congress to referee this issue."
"Football, like soccer, rugby and even basketball and baseball, involves contact that can produce injuries," Smith said. "We cannot legislate the elimination of injuries from the games without eliminating the games themselves."
Several other Republicans questioned the point of the hearing. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said that Congress' involvement in football would mean the end of the sport.
"We'd all be playing touch football," he said.
Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said that NFL team doctors are not player advocates, and called for an independent neurologist to be on the sidelines.
"Players get to a point where they refuse to tell the team doctor that they have suffered a concussion … [because] they know there is a backup player sitting on the bench, waiting to take their position," Culverhouse said.
"They are a disposable commodity," she added. "There is a draft coming up every April and these players fight to hold on to their jobs and they welcome shots and anything else that will keep them on the field. This is, in my mind, inhumane, and I watched it since the early '70s, and I will tell you that it has not changed."
Dr. Andrew Tucker, team physician for the Baltimore Ravens, echoed Culverhouse's assertion that players are prone to hiding information about head injuries.
In his testimony, Goodell said that the league has "reduced red tape, simplified the process for applicants and their families, and sped disability determinations." The league recently commissioned a report which suggested that retired pro football players may have a higher rate than normal of Alzheimer's disease or other memory afflictions — although the league was quick to point out the report did not prove a link.
"We learned a good deal from the report and are actively following up with the 56 players who reported memory problems," he said.
Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said there is "growing and convincing evidence" that repetitive concussive and subconcussive hits to the head in NFL players leads to a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
"The public health risk is already here and we cannot afford to wait any longer to make changes to the way we play sports," he said, calling for rule and technique changes.
His colleague at the center, Dr. Ann McKee, showed the committee images of brains of dead football players with CTE.
"We need to take radical steps" to change the way football is played, she said.