John McCain says NFL must do more to stop 'tragic outcome' of head trauma

  • Senator says Roger Goodell should follow combat sports’ example
  • Cleveland Clinic using athletes to gain insight into concussion

Senator John McCain is worried about brains. More importantly, he is worried about the effect contact sports have on the inside of the skull. For years, he decried mixed-martial arts, calling the activity “human cockfighting” and fighting to keep the sport off television until it was regulated.  On Tuesday he went after the NFL.

He had just watched a presentation by the Cleveland Clinic in which a doctor showed how brains of boxers and MMA fighters have been scanned for signs of deterioration with potentially ground-breaking technology. And McCain wondered why if even fighting leagues, with all their dysfunction, could come together to address long-term health why couldn’t the sports league most associated with brain trauma?

“It’s interesting that it is the least organized of all professional sports, in other words you have all this alphabet soup of boxing agencies and yet in the case of the NFL you have one czar who could dictate that these things happen,” McCain told the Guardian on Tuesday in an obvious reference to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“I’m going to be urging the NFL to be joining this Cleveland Clinic program so that we can prevent the tragic outcomes of too many blows,” McCain added. “We already know it’s happening, its already been covered enormously by the media.” 

Only recently, has the NFL even acknowledged that the sport causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition. This despite the fact that nearly 100 former players have tested positive for CTE after their deaths and a belief that many more are suffering from its effects. The league has been slow to pursue CTE research and has been accused to directing money for studies away from doctors whose findings might threaten football’s future. 

This is what seemed to baffle McCain on Tuesday. If he could get fighting organizations including MMA’s UFC and Bellator as well as boxing promoter Al Haymon to donate money and deliver fighters to the Cleveland Clinic’s study, why won’t the NFL do more?

He said he plans to write Goodell a letter asking him to add the NFL to the Cleveland Clinic’s research. “We’ll see what they say,” he said.

Those at Tuesday’s demonstration – such as boxer Larry Holmes and former NFL star and onetime MMA fighter Herschel Walker – raved about the Cleveland Clinic study that uses MRIs, blood screens and a number of tests conducted on an iPad app to measure changes in brain tissue and factors such as loss of balance and motor function.

Some went as far as to say it could be a game-changer in the study of brain trauma, giving direct warnings to fighters that they need to stop fighting – either temporarily or permanently – in order to avoid long-term damage. Former WBA super welterweight champion Austin Trout, who took part in the study, laughed as he said he said he hopes the study “will let me be champion for the right time” and not just a long time. 

Boxing and MMA are dangerous. There is, after all, a reason CTE was once called “punch drunk syndrome.” Several times on Tuesday people, including McCain, referred to Muhammad Ali who is severely slowed by Parkinson’s syndrome, likely brought on by repeated blows to the head. 

Charles Bernick, the Cleveland Clinic doctor, who runs the Las Vegas study, called combat sports: “the human model of head trauma since you know when fighters get hit and you can tell where they get hit.” He built his study to focus on fighters, counting on boxing and MMA to send roughly six fighters a week for repeated baseline testing over several months. He said the Nevada Athletic Commission, which helped oversee the project is going to require all fighters in the state to undergo his testing. 

But the absence of football loomed over the room. On occasion he has seen a former player who comes in for testing as part of a benefit provide by the NFL Players Association but the lack of a coordinated effort to look at the current effects on brains in the sport most associated with CTE surprised him. 

“This is the irony,” he said. “All these sports like football, hockey, Nascar and the rodeo that have [CTE issues], they aren’t doing this. But [fighters] who don’t have anything, they have no unions, they’re the ones coming in. It’s refreshing.”

The question lingers. If even combat sports are willing to confront their greatest safety concern how much longer can football afford to linger behind?  On Tuesday, McCain chuckled when it was pointed out that he once called MMA “human cockfighting”. 

“The MMA cleaned up their act, they really did,” he said. “When it first started they were able to do the things that are now prohibited. I don’t have a problem with the MMA.” 

But it seems he might with the NFL.


Les Carpenter in Washington DC

The GuardianTramp

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