WASHINGTON (AP) — After testifying for several hours on Capitol Hill and defending how the NFL handles current and retired players with head injuries, commissioner Roger Goodell recalled suffering a concussion himself in high school.
Goodell said outside the House Judiciary Committee hearing room Wednesday that he was injured sliding into second base in a baseball game.
"I saw a doctor, but it was briefly, and I don't recall missing any time," he said, contrasting it with how athletes are treated today.
"There's been a cultural change in all the sports," Goodell said. "But in particular, I'm responsible for the NFL, and there's been a significant cultural change in the seriousness of these injuries, and how to treat them. And the fact is, they should be treated on a very conservative, careful basis."
But when Goodell delivered that message at the packed, daylong hearing, several lawmakers challenged him to acknowledge a connection between head injuries on the football field and later brain diseases, which he did not.
Committee chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., asked Goodell whether he thinks such a link exists. Goodell responded the NFL isn't waiting for that debate to play out and is taking steps to make the game safer.
"I just asked you a simple question. What is the answer?" persisted Conyers.
Goodell replied by saying a medical expert could give a better answer than he could. But some House members complained later that Dr. Ira Casson, chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions, had not testified.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., gave Casson some exposure anyway, playing a clip of a TV interview in which he denied evidence of a link between multiple head injuries in NFL players with brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's.
Sanchez said that reminded her of tobacco companies denying a link between smoking and health damage in the 1990s.
Goodell testified alongside new NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith, who said the union "has not done its best in this area. We will do better." Both men did agree to turn over players' medical records to the committee.
In addition, Conyers wants information on head injuries from the NCAA, high schools and medical researchers to better understand football's health risks.
Still, several Republicans questioned the point of the hearing. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said Congress' involvement in football would mean the end of the sport.
"We'd all be playing touch football," he said.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., whose husband played in the NFL, asked Goodell how the league was addressing the welfare of retired players during current collective bargaining negotiations.
Goodell said it's a "priority for the owners and players to take better care of our retired players," but Waters cut him off, demanding specifics.
"We've heard from the NFL time and time again — you're always 'studying,' you're always 'trying,' you're 'hopeful,'" Waters said, pointing a finger in Goodell's direction. "I want to know what are you doing ... to deal with this problem and other problems related to injuries?"
When Goodell said talks between owners and players are in the early stages, Waters said it's time "for Congress to take a look at your antitrust exemption" and that she thinks it should be removed.
A 1961 law grants professional sports leagues antitrust exemption for broadcasting. That has allowed the NFL to sign TV contracts totaling billions of dollars on behalf of all its teams, helping transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.
When Waters was done grilling Goodell, she walked to the back of the hearing room and greeted Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown with a hug. Other former NFL stars present included Willie Wood, who sat in his wheelchair a few rows behind the witness table.
Several retired players testified at the hearing, including former fullback Merril Hoge, who said a series of concussions cost him his career. After his first concussion, he said he never saw a neurological doctor and was cleared to play five days later.
"What happened to me would not happen in the National Football League today," Hoge said. "That does not mean we are all the way there. We are on the way."
Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said NFL team doctors are not advocates for the players and called for an independent neurologist to be on the sidelines.
Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said there is "growing and convincing evidence" that repetitive concussive and subconcussive hits to the head in NFL players leads to a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
"The public health risk is already here, and we cannot afford to wait any longer to make changes to the way we play sports," he said, calling for rule and technique changes.
His colleague at the center, Dr. Ann McKee, showed the committee images of brains of dead football players with CTE.
"We need to take radical steps" to change the way football is played, she said.
Dick Benson told the committee about the death of his 17-year-old son, Will, a high school quarterback in Austin, Texas, several weeks after a helmet-to-helmet hit in 2002. The following year, Benson founded the Will Benson Foundation for Sports Safety. He said the game needs to be changed to reduce physical contact, especially helmet-to-helmet contact.
"My one request is," he said, pausing to sob, "don't let it happen again."