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Bengals’ Brown heats up concussion controversy

Mike Brown was talking about concussions and remembered a time when, as the Dartmouth College quarterback, he turned to hand the ball off to a hard-charging running back and instead got knocked out cold.

“His elbow was up,” he said with a shake of his head and a bit of a grin. “He hit me in the chin.”

Tuesday, the longtime owner of the Cincinnati Bengals returned the favor to plenty of former running backs and other NFL players — especially the estimated 5,000 now suing the NFL over the toll concussions take on their health and their belief that the league concealed the science on the effects of such blows.

Tuesday, Brown delivered a shot to the chops of some of those folks when he said the league not only has been doing everything it can to inform and protect players, but claimed there was no link between concussions and the early onset of dementia in players had been substantiated.

He also said that “health among NFL players — retired players — is superior to the norm, not inferior. They have better heart conditions, for example. They lived longer. The one area that was a little off — but not so much as to be statistically relevant, it was just a tiny differential — was in the dementia area. And it’s not really proven at all.”

Never mind that a growing numbers of studies say otherwise.

In 2007, a study of 2,500 players that the NFL itself undertook, found that players who had had at least three concussions had three times the risk of depression than did the general populace.

Last year a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that NFL players have triple the risk of neurodegenerative diseases as does the non- football playing population.

Concussion expert Julian Bailes, the Chairman of Department of Neurosurgery of NorthShore Neurological Institute in Chicago, studied the autopsies of several NFL players who died before their time — including Pittsburgh’s Mike Webster, Philadelphia’s Andre Waters and the Bengals own Chris Henry — and found degenerative brain disease in all of them.

Yet, Brown pressed his argument Tuesday: “We are besieged by this both from the PR realm and in the courts now, yet no one really knows for sure what concussions mean… Not only is it not proven, but it’s merely speculation. Our statistics — at least the ones I’ve seen — don’t show that.”

The Bengals held their annual media luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium Tuesday to kick off the start of a new season and there was a lot of warranted talk about the promising young team Cincinnati will field this year. There was also palpable excitement over the presence of HBO cameras that will film preseason drills (which begin Thursday) and turn the proceedings into a much-watched sports soap opera for HBO’s popular mini-series “Hard Knocks.”

Early on Tuesday, someone asked Brown if he was worried what he might say once the ever-present HBO cameras start rolling. He said he wasn’t.

Then again, there’s nothing he’ll say in front of them that likely will cause any more of a stir than what he said Tuesday.

But to be fair, he said almost nothing different than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did when pressed on the issue at the Super Bowl earlier this year.

Goodell repeatedly refused to acknowledge a link between brain injuries and football.

Whether NFL brass truly believes that up for debate — and it would be a weak one — but there’s no question they are trying to protect their $8 billion a year industry from all those lawsuits (at least 250 by former players) on the horizon.

The NFL had pushed for a dismissal of those suits, but two weeks ago a federal judge in Philadelphia ordered the league and the former players who are suing it over concussion-related health issues to enter mediation.

Already this month, the Bengals lost an arbitration hearing over a dispute former tight end Ben Utecht had with the team over a concussion he suffered during a 2009 practice and his subsequent release once he was taken off injured reserve late that season.

The arbitrator — in a point Brown disputed Tuesday — ruled the team should not have cleared Utecht to play and said the Bengals had to pay him the rest of his salary.

Brown said the team did everything it could for months to treat him and that Utecht was cleared to play by doctors and “concussion specialists.” He said once a player is deemed fit to play, league rules permit a team to release him.

The fact that a concussion was involved tapped into THE hot button issue in the NFL now.

Some former players say the toll that comes from concussions can lead to depression, memory loss and what is become an alarming number of suicides by some of their old colleagues.

For years the league espoused skepticism over the dangers of concussions. The old mantra was: “Shake the cobwebs off and get back in there.” And that’s what players did.

Now many of those guys who suffered numerous concussions believe the league knew far more than it was letting on.

That is a point of contention and no blanket statement can be made about everyone in the league.

Brown said the league has always taken the issue seriously.

“Our league tries. Give it credit for that. It doesn’t sit on its hands… We are trying to protect our players. There has been an increase in rules. We’ve added extra doctors.

“We have done everything we can think of to address this issue… Even though I’m not convinced that anyone knows what concussions bring, what they mean in later life … if anything.”

As he addressed the issue Tuesday — and tried to make it personal by recounting a few of the times he had suffered concussions — Brown brought up a time he was kayoed in a high school game.

“I was the quarterback and I guess I was running — I don’t remember — but the next thing I do remember is being in the locker room. I woke up on as gurney — is that what you call it? — anyway, there was my mother, much to my consternation.”

He laughed at the image as he remembered his thought at the time: “How can you be in the locker room, Mom?”

Obviously Mrs. Brown was worried about the blow her son had suffered.

All these years later, maybe her son should draw on Mom just a little more.

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