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NFL’s admission of likely CTE link raises heat on NHL

An NFL senior VP's statement admitting a likely link between head injuries and CTE puts the NHL in a tough spot to keep denying one exits.

The NHL's long-running efforts to deny the long-term impact of head trauma have taken a hit from an unlikely source: the National Football League

On Monday, Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety, was asked about the connection between football and degenerative brain disorders like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during an appearance at a congressional committee discussion about concussions.

His answer was surprisingly blunt.

"Well, certainly, Dr. McKee's research shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE, so the answer to that question is certainly yes," Miller said.

That startling admission, which referenced the work of Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, runs counter to the NFL's long-held position that there is no connection between head trauma and the development of diseases like CTE. As recently as this year's Super Bowl, Dr. Mitch Berger, the neurosurgeon who leads the NFL subcommittee on long-term brain injury, told reporters that there is no established link between football and CTE.

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Miller's admission also runs counter to the approach employed by the NHL as well.

"From a medical science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that [head trauma] necessarily leads to [CTE],” commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters last May. “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.”

There's just enough wiggle room in Bettman's statement to allow the NHL to continue down that cynical and self-serving path if it chooses. And since Miller's admission related only to football, there's nothing directly in what he said that can stop it, either. (The NHL has not yet responded to a request for comment.)

But at the same time, Miller's statement poses an undeniable PR problem for the NHL. This "no evidence" angle has been a tough sell from the start. Now that an NFL executive has come clean, the NHL would look ridiculous by staying on the course of denial.

As a result, Miller's remarks could force the NHL into a more open discussion about the science of these injuries and what can be done to minimize the potential of them in the future.That's what the players involved in the ongoing concussion litigation against the league would like to see.

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"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," the plaintiffs' co-lead counsel said in a statement on Tuesday. "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.”

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While Miller's statement may change the discourse, it won't impact the NHL's ability to defend itself in the concussion lawsuit.

"For starters, Miller's admission is limited to the sport of football," legal expert Michael McCann explained. "Even if Miller had extended the point to hockey, it's not clear that he has a sufficient background in hockey from which we could rely on his opinion. The NHL would object to Miller's admission becoming part of its concussion litigation with retired players on grounds it is not relevant and on grounds that Miller is not a hockey expert. Second, Miller's admission doesn't technically prove the NFL broke the law or prove that a retired NFL player's CTE issues were developed by playing in the NFL rather than playing football in college, high school etc. Proving that a league broke the law in regards to CTE is a much higher threshold than proving that CTE occurred."

That's a reminder that Miller's comments haven't changed the NHL's legal footing. But it should alter its moral stance. Acknowledging the current state of the science is the first step.

Thanks to Miller, the truth is out there. We'll see what the NHL does with it.

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