Colts owner Jim Irsay disputes direct link between CTE-football

Feb 6, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay looks on during a press conference to announce the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 6, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay looks on during a press conference to announce the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

CTE has become a topic of discussion at the owners meetings this past week and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay sat down to share his thoughts on the matter.

The NFL has a big problem when it comes to the image of the league and the safety of its players past, present, and future. Just a few weeks ago NFL executive V.P. of player health and safety Jeff Miller admitted to a link between Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy (CTE) and football in front of Congress. Now, owners in the NFL are trying to walk back those comments and add their own thoughts on the matter.

Jim Irsay spoke with Daniel Kaplan at the SportsBusiness Journal (subscription) and shared his thoughts on CTE and the (fairly clear) link it has with football. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio has pulled the Irsay quotes that follow.

"“I can’t say I agree with that comment,” Colts owner Jim Irsay told Daniel Kaplan of SportsBusiness Journal regarding Miller’s remarks. “To say you know all of a sudden there is a suicide or a murder, and to say, ‘Oh, that is football.’ I mean, that is completely ludicrous. It’s not just true. There is so much we don’t know. Whether you are dealing with Alzheimer’s, whether dealing with contact sports with concussions that can come into play, you know, we don’t know enough about it.”"

Irsay is taking some liberties here by mixing CTE with other health problems. He’s being overly simplistic and deflecting the issue which is really that there is a connection but we don’t have the research yet to determine what it means or what to do with it.

"“Football is so popular, people know they can sell their story in a newspaper form or a rating on TV, so they use football because what they are more about in the business of, you know, selling newspapers or seeing commercial time on TV,” Irsay said. “I see it for what it is, man. I stand there and look at it as a grandfather and someone who has been around for 50 years and sure, part of it is frustrating, but everyone has their own self-motivating motive, and that just happens.”"

This is disingenuous from Irsay. Doctor Bennett Omalu, who discovered CTE, wasn’t hoping to gain national attention from his research or to profit off the NFL. When the owners in the NFL have so much to lose, their credibility is brought into question with statements like this and the ones Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made last week.

"“One thing I have always felt strongly about, that [is] to say, ‘Oh, someone knew something and they didn’t tell way back in the ’60s or ’70s,’ that’s just not true,” Irsay said. “I was there. I know that’s a lie. You know, no one knew anything. The only thing we know and always knew is when you strap on that helmet and go out on the field, boy you know you are taking a risk, but the reward is something. It’s worth it.”"

Considering that CTE was discovered in the mid-2000s, it’s true that this hasn’t been a long term cover up job by the NFL. Just a short term one. Florio takes Irsay to task in this regard:

"Irsay is flat-out wrong on this. It’s been proven and accepted that the NFL, via the efforts of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and acting on a “self-motivating motive,” downplayed and ignored at best and covered up and lied about at worst the risks of head trauma from 1994 until perhaps as late as October 2009, when the NFL had an epiphany provoked by a Congressional hearing on the issue."

Irsay goes on to compare the risks of football to that of taking aspirin.

"I believe this: that the game has always been a risk, you know, and the way certain people are. Look at it. You take an aspirin, I take an aspirin, it might give you extreme side effects of illness and your body … may reject it, where I would be fine. So there is so much we don’t know."

Here’s the thing, playing football doesn’t guarantee that you will suffer from CTE just like smoking cigarettes won’t guarantee you’ll end up with lung cancer. The admittedly limited evidence we have so far shows that the longer someone plays football, the greater their risk of CTE becomes. There is still a ton of research needed on the matter, which is hard to do since they can’t diagnose CTE in a living person at this time.

Right now, the NFL owners sound like tobacco executives denying any link to cancer or other health problems with the product they are selling. They have a lot to protect, but perhaps admitting, researching, and working on prevention would be a better tact then yelling denials to anyone who will listen at this time.