A senior official of the National Football League has acknowledged for the first time that a link exists between football-related head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE -- an admission that some retired players hope will change the terms of a settlement the league reached last year with survivors of former players diagnosed with the disease.
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Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety, made the admission Monday during a congressional discussion on concussions convened by the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce. He was asked by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, if the link between football and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE had been established.
"The answer to that question is certainly yes," Miller said.
Last April, a federal judge approved a billion dollar plan for the NFL to settle thousands of concussion-related lawsuits, including damages to families of players who had already been diagnosed with CTE after their deaths. But some retired players opted out of the class-action lawsuit and are appealing the settlement, arguing that the terms should be extended to cover the families of younger retirees, like themselves, who may in the future be diagnosed with CTE. Currently, a CTE diagnosis can only be made after death.
One group appealing the settlement said today that Miller's acknowledgement of the link between football head injuries and CTE should change the terms of the NFL's concussion settlement reached last year with 20,000 NFL retirees for the next 65 years.
In a letter to a U.S. appellate judge filed with the court today, Steven Molo, the attorney representing a group of former players appealing the settlement, said Miller’s comments show “the NFL now accepts what science already knows: a ‘direct link’ exists between traumatic brain injury and CTE. Given that, the Settlement’s failure to compensate present and future CTE is inexcusable.”
Among Molo’s clients are former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca, former Oakland Raiders running back Roderick Cartwright, former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jeff Rohrer and former Eagles and Jaguars safety Sean Considine. Molo represents former players who were concerned their families would lose out on compensation should they, at some future point, be diagnosed with CTE linked to their playing days.
Molo will not be filing additional motions, he said, adding that the letter is the appropriate method to raise the court’s awareness of the NFL’s admission.
Miller said Monday that he based his assessment on work by Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who has diagnosed CTE in the brains of 176 people, including those of 90 out of 94 former NFL players.
The NFL's top health and safety officer said that little is known about the prevalence of the devastating disease or the risk of incurring it.
"I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means, and where do we go from here with that information," Miller said.
For years, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league representatives have avoided taking a position on football's possible link to CTE. In 2009, a spokesperson for the NFL remained vague, telling the New York Times that it is "quite obvious from the medical research that's been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems."
Three days before the Super Bowl, the San Francisco neurosurgeon who leads the NFL subcommittee on long-term brain injury, Dr. Mitch Berger, asserted that there is still no established link between the sport and CTE.
When Berger's assertion was mentioned during the House of Representatives discussion, Miller would neither confirm nor deny the doctor's remarks.
"Well, I'm not gonna speak for Dr. Berger," Miller said.
Miller declined to elaborate on his remarks after the discussion, which focused on the growing debate over the seriousness of the concussion issue, and what should be done about it. The House of Representatives gathered more than a dozen concussion experts for the discussion, as well as representatives of the federal government, the military, the scientific community, the NCAA and the NFL.
Some speakers said the awareness surrounding concussions and how to treat them have never been better and that the risks of playing contact sports like football have been overstated. Other speakers cautioned against conflating concussions with CTE, a distinct neurodegenerative disease and has only been found in people who have been exposed to head trauma, usually on multiple occasions.
"The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told ABC News.
The NFL Players Association said in a statement today: "The good news is that this admission comes in time for both parties to address its significance to a settlement that apparently does not cover treatment for CTE in living players. The bad news is that the NFL's lobbyist reached the foregone medical conclusion before the NFL's chief physician did. That is unacceptable."
The NFL responded Tuesday evening to Molo's letter, filing its own letter with the appeals court, saying that Molo's letter "fundamentally mischaracterizes the Settlement Agreement as failing to compensate CTE." The NFL also said that what Miller told the congressional panel "is consistent with NFL positions in court and otherwise."
"Simply put, Mr. Miller's remarks have no bearing on the pending appeal, and Mr. Molo's letter raised nothing new, pertinent, or authoritative," the NFL's letter to the court added.
ABC News' Katie Conway contributed to this report.