HOUSTON (AP) — Paul Tagliabue's rejection by Hall of Fame voters didn't come as a surprise to one of the biggest critics of the NFL's research and handling of head injuries.
"You can't underestimate what those decisions made on concussions in the '90s have cost football players and their families," Chris Nowinski told The Associated Press on Saturday night, shortly after the former commissioner was left out of this year's class.
Nowinski is founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which has received more than 1,400 pledges from former players and military veterans to donate their brains to concussion research. He started studying the NFL's handling of concussions in 2003, and said when he began "reading this history of the issue and the medical literature on how the NFL did its studies, my jaw dropped."
Tagliabue led the NFL from 1989-2006, bringing owners onto the same page, getting stadiums built and cementing pro football's status as America's most-successful sport.
But comments he made in 1994 illustrated his lack of concern about concussions. He called them "one of those pack-journalism issues," and claimed that the number of concussions "is relatively small; the problem is the journalist issue."
Three days before Saturday night's vote, Tagliabue issued his most thorough apology for his treatment of a crisis that has irrevocably altered the game and how it's viewed by players and fans. He said he regretted the remarks: "My language was intemperate, and it led to serious misunderstanding."
It also led to him being kept out of the Hall of Fame in this, his fourth time as a finalist.
"He did some great things in this league," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "But it's a high bar when you have to do things that aren't necessarily agreed upon by a lot of people. I am disappointed that he's not sitting up here with me tonight."
Among Tagliabue's most glaring missteps was his 1994 appointment of a rheumatologist, Elliot Pellman, as the head of the NFL's mild traumatic brain injury committee.
Nowinski says that and dozens of other decisions delayed the NFL in taking serious action in treating and researching concussions.
Since Tagliabue's retirement, thousands of former players diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions have sued the NFL, and the league has reached a $1 billion settlement with them.
"It's hard to gauge if these were his decisions or decisions that were made by owners," Nowinski said. "But those were the decisions of that era. It's a black eye on the era, and on the people who were in charge."
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