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NFL doctor: Youth football is safer than riding a bike

Don't worry, football fans. Nothing to see here.
Don't worry, football fans. Nothing to see here.
(NFL Network/Yahoo Sports)

The NFL has gotten all sorts of bad publicity about concussions lately. So an NFL doctor is reassuring everyone that the worries are overblown.

Earlier this week, Chris Borland, a standout 24-year-old NFL player, retired due to concerns about concussions and the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

In response, Pittsburgh Steelers team neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon appeared on NFL Network on Tuesday to downplay the league's concussion problem. "The problem of CTE, although real, is being over-exaggerated," he said. "It's a rare phenomenon." Maroon also claimed the NFL has "never been safer."

The exact incidence of CTE among NFL players is still uncertain, but Maroon's claim that CTE is "rare" is contradicted by most recent research — such as the fact that 76 of 79 deceased NFL players examined at Boston University's CTE Center were found to have CTE. In court documents related to a concussion lawsuit, the NFL itself has admitted that roughly 30 percent of former players will develop long-term cognitive problems during their lifetimes, with twice as many experiencing these problems at relatively young ages compared with the general population.

In the interview, Maroon also defended the safety of youth tackle football. "It's much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football," he said. Youth football, just like the NFL, "has never been safer." This, too, conflicts with most independent experts' opinions, as well as with the recent finding that kids' brains may be especially vulnerable to impacts, increasing the risk of long-term symptoms.

Maroon's history of downplaying the risk of brain damage

terry long

After Terry Long committed suicide in 2005 and examiners linked it to the signs of CTE they saw in his brain, Maroon called it "fallacious." (George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Maroon has long been part of a group of NFL-backed researchers that have downplayed the danger of CTE.

In 2006, after former Steelers player Terry Long committed suicide at the age of 45 and medical examiners determined that football-related CTE (which can cause depression) was a contributing factor in his death, Maroon said, "I think it's fallacious reasoning, and I don't think it's plausible at all."

That year, Maroon joined the league's infamous Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee: a group that flatly rejected the mounting evidence for a link between head injuries suffered on the field and the long-term problems of depression and dementia. The committee also conducted its own research that was criticized by outside experts.

In 2009, the league finally acknowledged the problem, but Maroon has remained one of several doctors on NFL payrolls who continue to downplay the issue. In 2013, he worked on a study that concluded youth football teams should not limit hitting in practice (as Pop Warner and other leagues have recently done) — another finding that was criticized by several leading CTE researchers.

Hat tip to Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar for spotting this interview.

Further reading:

Watch: Can the NFL survive its concussion crisis?'