The two men in charge of the National Football League's committee on mild traumatic brain injury have resigned, The New York Times reports today. The move appears to be the latest sign that the league is changing attitude towards growing evidence that head injuries suffered on the field can lead to personality changes, dementia, and other problems later in life.
David Viano, a biomechanics expert and adjunct professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and Ira Casson, a Long Island neurologist, have co-chaired the committee since 2007. Casson in particular has been an outspoken critic, in letters to journal editors and in the mass media, of studies linking football injuries to later neurological problems.
The NFL has been facing increasing pressure on this issue from scientists, players groups, and lawmakers. At a Congressional hearing last month, representatives took NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to task, hinting that the government might want to re-examine exemptions to antitrust laws granted to the league if it doesn't start taking the issue more seriously. "The hearings were a turning point," says Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon in West Virginia who co-authored some of the first studies showing evidence of brain damage in NFL players.
Citing independent experts, representatives criticized the methodology of NFL-sponsored studies under Casson's direction. And last week, the NFL Players Association called for Casson's removal, claiming he was not impartial enough to be leading these studies.
Casson has the reputation of being "sort of a pitbull," says Kevin Guskiewicz, a neuroscientist and research director of the Center for theStudy of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina,Chapel Hill. "He was tying to defend at all costs their [NFL-sponsored] studies and criticize any other studies that would go against them." That position has grown increasingly untenable as more evidence has come to light, says Robert Cantu, a sports neurologist and leading authorityon concussion in Concord, Massachusetts. "[Casson] has been the public face trying to defend the NFL against a tidal wave of solid science," Cantu says.
Guskiewicz, Cantu, and Bailes all praise the move as a positive step towards more open dialogue between the league and independent researchers. Casson, reached by phone today, declined to comment.