Kenneth Goldblatt | October 20, 2018 | Personal Injury
The N.F.L’s first attempt at a long-range study on the effects of concussions was riddled with problems from the manner in which data was collected to conflicts of interest for those overseeing it. After criticism from outside experts and even members of Congress, the study was shut down by the league in late 2009.
Nearly two years later, however, the N.F.L.’s committee on concussion research is planning a considerably broader study — an effort that could begin gathering data as soon as next season, according to one of the doctors involved.
The doctor, Mitchel S. Berger, the chairman of the neurological surgery department at the University of California San Francisco, said Monday that he and the N.F.L.’s subcommittee on former players and long-term effects of brain and spine injury had been holding conference calls regarding the study every two weeks with representatives from the players’ union. He added that he hoped to make a final presentation to the union and Commissioner Roger Goodell “in the near future.”
Berger said he was aware of the issues surrounding the previous study, and said the latest model was completely different.
“There was no science in that,” Berger said in reference to the study coordinated by Dr. Ira Casson, who was also the league’s primary voice in discrediting outside research on concussions. Asked if he might use any of the data from Casson’s work, Berger shook his head.
“We’re really moving on from that data,” he said. “There’s really nothing we can do with that data in terms of how it was collected and assessed.”
Berger said earlier studies failed to properly assess the effect of previous injuries on a subject. The new model, he said, is a “prospective longitudinal study,” which does not just evaluate a subject, but tracks it for an extended period.
Specifically, Berger said, the study will include about 1,400 people, aged 45 to 59, and divided into three groups. The first group will be retired N.F.L. players; the second will be people who played college football but never professionally; and the third will be a control group of nonathletes who have some medical commonalities with the first two (a heightened prevalence of diabetes, for example).
What tests will be conducted is still being determined, but Berger said the workups would be comprehensive. A baseline test for each subject will be performed, and subsequent examinations will be given every three years. A similar study, with three groups featuring the same characteristics but for people aged 60 to 75, will also be conducted, involving about 400 subjects, Berger said.
“Because the prevalence of serious problems in that younger age group is less common and obvious,” he said, “you have to look at so many more individuals.”
Berger explained the study at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center here, where moments earlier, Goodell had spoken at the 2011 Congress of Neurological Surgeons. In his remarks, Goodell seemed to summarize the increasing focus the N.F.L. has had on head, neck and spine injuries in recent years.
When Casson was doing his study, its point was to find out if there was a link between repeated football head trauma and degenerative cognitive function. With a consensus having formed that the link does exist, it appears that the goal now is to find out how strong it is, whom it affects most and what preventative steps can be taken by the league to minimize potential damage to its players.
“There is nothing more important to the N.F.L. than the safety of our players, and there is no issue of greater importance when it comes to player safety than the effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment of concussions,” Goodell told the convention crowd.
He added: “The more we can learn about the brain, the better for all. And we can be the leaders.”
Robert E. Harbaugh, the chairman of neurosurgery at Penn State, said his subcommittee for the development and management of a prospective database for N.F.L. players was pursuing a more thorough examination of active players in hopes of identifying potential genetic conditions that might make a player predisposed to cognitive issues later in life. Goodell also spoke about the effects of current rule changes designed to increase player safety, and the possibility of other changes.
Goodell would not rule out instituting rules regarding the three-point stance, which linemen use on nearly every play before launching themselves, often headfirst, into opposing players. “We’re going to consider everything,” he told reporters.