NFL’s new stance on player health is encouraging, but we’ve been fooled before

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying something along the lines of “America eventually does the right thing after exploring all other options.’’

Scholars say there isn’t much evidence Churchill actually said it, but it is a good line — because America indeed has a history of taking a long time to get around to doing the right thing.

Now it may be time to apply that to the NFL after a remarkable Washington Post interview with Allen Sills, a Vanderbilt University neurosurgeon hired in March as the NFL’s chief medical officer.

The NFL may be finally getting around to doing the right thing on the issue of player health and safety.

Sills made some common-sense observations to the Post, but common-sense comments haven’t usually been the norm in recent years when NFL officials talked about player healthy and safety.

To start with, Sills said it’s “really important’’ for the league and the NFL Players Association to determine whether marijuana can be used as an effective and safe pain-management tool for players.

“I think we have a lot more to learn about that,’’ he said.

What’s astounding about that comment is that the NFL still bans marijuana, and the current attorney general Jeff Sessions has come out against it, even though several states have legalized it.

Sills said it is not only a football problem but a problem for society because “treatment of both acute and chronic pain is a huge public health problem.’’

The opioid epidemic is an example of the problem because so many pain-killers are addictive.  The NFL needs to find out if marijuana is a better alternative.

The league send a letter to the NFLPA in July offering to work together on research into the potential use of marijuana for pain management for players. The NFLPA has been conducting its own study and hasn’t replied.

Unfortunately, the league’s relationship with the players isn’t at a good place right now. The league needs to win the trust of the players that it is sincere.

Then there is the concussion problem.

Sills said, “I think it’s very clear that there are long-term health risks associated with repetitive head injuries, particularly if they are not treated properly.’’

What? An NFL official said that? It wasn’t so long ago that the NFL was the “League of Denial’’ chronicled in the book of that title and the movie “Concussion.’’  The NFL was being compared to Big Tobacco as it churned out papers denying the risk of head injuries.

Even to this day, the league has sent out mixed signals on the issue. After the league’s Miller suggested to a congressional committee last year that a link does exist between CTE and football, Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said it was “absurd’’ to suggest a link has been established because “medicine is evolving.’’

Sills said the problem with head injuries was established in 1928, when a pathologist named Harrison Martland described a syndrome in boxers caused by repetitive head blows. It used to be said that boxers were “punch drunk.’’

It is kind of jarring, though, to hear an NFL official say it was obvious almost 90 years ago that head blows were a problem when the NFL was denying that very same thing just a few months ago.

Sills also said the recent report from Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System that the degenerative brain disease CTE was found in 110 of 111 brains of former players was “another important contribution.’’

He rightly added that there is “so much we don’t understand with regard to causation and incidence and who exactly is at risk.’’

Nobody knows the percentage of players who suffer CTE because it can be determined only after a player dies. And the relatives who donate players’ brains to Boston University probably had symptoms when they were still alive. And there is no easy answer to knowing why some players suffer from CTE and some don’t.

The proof will still be in the pudding, and it remains to be seen if the NFL is really committed to improving the situations or whether Sills is just a skilled public spokesman.

He said commissioner Roger Goodell told him, “Player health and safety is our No. 1 priority.’’

Goodell has never acted that way. He hasn’t even acted as if football is his top priority. He’s always acted as if making money for the league is the top priority.

Sills, though, said he got the same message from team owners and league executives and club personnel.

Sills said he’s talked to referees about identifying players with concussion syndrome and has been working with Thom Maher, the NFLPA’s medical director.

Sills still has a long way to go to proving the NFL is no longer the League of Denial. But he seems to have taken a good first step.

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