All 32 teams must send doctors, trainers to meeting
National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell has ordered all 32 NFL teams to send doctors and athletic trainers to a special meeting on concussions, ESPN has learned. And the researchers briefing them will consist not only of members of the league's own concussions committee, but also outside scientists, including a few virulent critics of that committee.
The meeting will take place on June 19 in Chicago, according to documents prepared by the NFL's Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI). The league is expecting about 160 people to attend, including Goodell, league officials and two doctors and two trainers from each club.
It will be the first leaguewide conference on concussions; the NFL held a similar briefing on issues surrounding heat and hydration following the death of Korey Stringer, the Vikings' tackle killed by heat stroke in 2001.
"The reason for it is for teams to hear from the committee and outside experts and directly review the work of the committee, ask questions and consider new initiatives as we move toward the 2007 season," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
The NFL's concussion policy has come under intense scrutiny recently, and the conference is the latest indication that under Goodell, the league is changing direction.
Last October, an ESPN The Magazine investigation reported that several of the nation's leading sports concussion experts had harsh criticism for the MTBI committee's research methods and the qualifications and tactics of its then-chairman, Elliot Pellman.
In November, former player Andre Waters committed suicide. The New York Times later reported that, according to Pittsburgh pathologist Bennet Omalu, Waters had the brain of an 85-year-old man, and that multiple concussions had caused or at least severely worsened his brain damage.
In February, former player Ted Johnson told the New York Times and the Boston Globe that he suffers from mental lapses, depression and an amphetamine addiction; he blames concussions.
In January, the MTBI committee added three new members: a neurologist, a neuroradiologist and a neurosurgeon. And on Feb. 26, Pellman stepped down as head of the committee.
The June conference will open with a keynote presentation by Michael Apuzzo, the editor of Neurosurgery Magazine. It will close with remarks by Pellman, who remains the league's medical advisor, and Thom Mayer, medical director for the NFL Players Association, according to an agenda ESPN has obtained. And it will cover several issues where the MTBI committee has taken controversial positions that it continues to hold.
But its roster of speakers reflects Goodell's ongoing insistence that the committee involve new scientists and research in its work. In half a dozen cases, presentations will pair members of the committee with outsiders.
For example, one session will ask whether guidelines on returning injured athletes to play should apply to the NFL.
Currently, the league allows every team to manage concussions as it sees fit, and 52 percent of players who suffer concussions, including a quarter of those who are knocked out, return in the same game. And one of the speakers at that presentation will be Ira Casson, co-chair of the MTBI committee and a neurologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
Casson is a staunch defender of the committee's research and co-authored a 2005 paper that stated: "Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season."
But the other speaker will be Robert Cantu, chief of neurosurgery and director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., who has developed guidelines that organizations outside the NFL use to figure out how long injured players should sit out.
Similarly, the conference will present a range of views on studies of retired players. In 2003 and 2005, surveys by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina found links between concussions and depression, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease among retired NFL players.
Several members of the committee responded by publicly downplaying those results; Pellman notoriously told HBO's "Inside the NFL", "When I look at that study, I don't believe it." But this time around, Julian Bailes, medical director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes and chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, will talk to the team doctors and trainers about his work alongside Mark Lovell, a member of the committee and director of neuropsychology for the NFL.
The teams will also hear from William Barr, who was the Jets' neuropsychologist from 1995-2004, when Pellman fired him. Barr told ESPN The Magazine last year that he had grown concerned that Pellman was cherry-picking which test results to include in league studies to downplay the effects of concussions.
But the committee invited Barr to speak at the June conference, and he will.
"I'll be talking about what the best period is for neuropsychological testing after players are injured," Barr said. "But I am also going to keep asking what data the committee used for its research and why."
The NFL's own study of retired players and concussions, which committee members have talked about for years and which is finally about to get off the ground, will be another topic at the conference. Inside and outside the league, scientists agree that study will offer the committee a further chance to work with new blood.
"We look at a different population [active NFL players] than others," one member of the MTBI Committee said.
"Maybe we've done it differently. Maybe we haven't let them play in our ballpark. But we need to advance the science."
Peter Keating writes about sports business for ESPN The Magazine.