Perhaps no other division in the league has had higher-profile players with concussions this season than the NFC East. Pro Bowl running backs Brian Westbrook and Clinton Portis are recovering from concussions. Westbrook suffered two concussions in a three-week span but his prognosis is good, according to specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Redskins coach Jim Zorn has described Portis as "foggy" this week and he's already ruled him out for the Cowboys game Sunday.
I bring this up because the New York Times reported Thursday that the NFL Players Association has asked for Dr. Ira Casson to be removed as co-chairman of the league's committee on concussions. It's not a surprising development in light of the fact that Casson has attempted to discredit much of the research done on the long-term effects of brain injuries in the NFL.
At a recent hearing on football brain injuries before the House Judiciary Committee, Casson was criticized for some of his opinions on the topic. He's discredited independent studies, but he's also cast doubt on league-sponsored research. Casson is currently leading an NFL study that won't produce any information until 2012 or 2013. An NFLPA official, George Atallah, told the Times on Thursday that union chief DeMaurice Smith has twice talked to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about having Casson removed from the committee on concussions.
"Our view is that he’s a polarizing figure on this issue, and the players certainly don’t feel like he can be an impartial party on this subject,” said Atallah, the union’s assistant executive director for external affairs. "The meetings between Roger and DeMaurice are private and we like to maintain confidentiality, but I believe there were concerns expressed by both parties."
You have to love the last part of that quote. We want to keep the details of those conversations private, but yes, there were "concerns" on both sides. That's confidentiality at its best. And here's the league's response:
"We can tell you that we have already informed the NFLPA of a number of steps we are considering relating to player health and safety,” including the work of the committee on brain injuries. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello added, “Mr. Smith did not initiate a discussion about Dr. Casson with the commissioner, and we don't know what purpose is served by raising it publicly at this time.”
I think Aiello knows exactly what purpose is being served by the union bringing this up publicly. Casson didn't attend the recent hearing in Washington D.C., but that didn't save him from criticism. With the help of the House Judiciary Committee, the union has painted the league into a corner. If Goodell suddenly ousts Casson, it would look like an admission that the league has taken the wrong approach on concussions.
But the alternative -- keeping Casson as the co-chairman -- will continue to give the union an easy target. Given the size and speed of players in today's NFL, I think it's more important than ever to study the long-term effects of brain injuries and then figure out what can be done to prevent them.
It's an important story and we'll continue to follow it.