NEW YORK — A congressional committee criticized the NFL's research into equipment, particularly helmets, questioning if player safety is indeed being given top priority in an "infected system that needs to be cleaned up."
The House Judiciary Committee also expressed dissatisfaction at a Manhattan forum Monday with the way the league is dealing with retired players now suffering from traumatic head injuries.
Reps. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., questioned Drs. Richard Ellenbogen and Hunt Batjer, the new co-chairmen of the NFL's head, neck and spine medical committee. Sanchez and Weiner wondered why Ellenbogen and Batjer do not have stronger roles in gathering data about equipment.
Weiner asked: "Shouldn't the question be what's best for the players, protection for the noggin that's of the highest quality?"
Ellenbogen and Batjer were hired by the league in March, and Batjer said they will become "heavily involved" in collecting information on helmets.
"We will be intimate with the processes of testing equipment," Batjer said. "That will be carefully monitored."
He stressed that the league is using experts in the field to analyze information from recent testing of current helmets and those being developed. Batjer said he is comfortable with that system.
But Weiner emphasized that because the NFL has a licensing deal with equipment manufacturer Riddell, it creates "a credibility issue that has been compounded over time, and it's your job to unravel it."
The two NFL neurologists replaced Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano, who led the league committee on concussions since 2007. They resigned in November, less than a month after Casson and the NFL's concussion policy were criticized by Congress during a hearing at which commissioner Roger Goodell testified. Weiner was startled that Casson and Viano had roles in recent league research into helmets.
"Two so discredited people were part of these studies," Weiner noted, his voice rising. "You have years of an infected system that needs to be cleaned up. The idea is to prevent injuries in the first place and there is a blind spot if you are not involved with helmets."
Batjer said that's exactly what he and Ellenbogen intend to do – fix past problems and make the game safer.
"We certainly understand his concern and as we go forward," Batjer said, "we will be very careful that conflicts of interest are articulated and understood by everyone."
Ellenbogen outlined a six-point approach by the NFL to deal with head trauma. That program will build a database on every player that will log every concussion; study the effects of concussions on retired players; improve equipment, notably helmets; advocate for all athletes in all sports; advance the understanding of concussions; and revise and continually improve the return to play criteria for athletes.
"I assure you the NFL will be a leader in this area," he said.
But Sanchez questioned the league's commitment to retired players, some of whom collect tiny pensions and, in a few cases, are homeless. She emphasized if there are links between blows to the head and brain damage, the league must adjust its disability payment system.
Like Weiner, Sanchez also reproached the NFL.
"If studies show a continued link between football players who have had blows to the head and dementia and Alzheimer's and cognitive decline," she said, "it's imperative to revise the disability policy."