Under sometimes-contentious questioning from lawmakers - and suggestions about reconsidering the league's billions-generating antitrust exemption - Goodell sat at a witness table Wednesday alongside NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith.
Both men agreed to turn over players' medical records to the House Judiciary Committee.
Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., asked Goodell whether he thinks there's an injury-disease link. Goodell responded that the NFL isn't waiting for that debate to play out and is taking steps to make the game safer.
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WASHINGTON (AP) - A House committee chairman said Wednesday he'll seek records on head injuries from the NFL players union, the NCAA, high schools and medical researchers to better understand football's health risks.
"We need an expeditious and independent review of all the data," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., told a Judiciary Committee hearing, saying the problem is a "life and death" issue that warrants federal scrutiny.
"I say this not simply because of the impact of these injuries on the 2,000 current players and more than 10,000 retirees associated with the NFL and their families," Conyers said. "I say it because of the effect on the millions of players at the college, high school and youth levels."
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the panel, said that while Congress can highlight the consequences of playing football, "the NFL does not need Congress to referee this issue."
"Football, like soccer, rugby and even basketball and baseball, involves contact that can produce injuries," Smith said. "We cannot legislate the elimination of injuries from the games without eliminating the games themselves."
Gay Culverhouse, the former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said that NFL team doctors are not player advocates, and called for an independent neurologist to be on the sidelines for games.
"Players get to a point where they refuse to tell the team doctor that they have suffered a concussion ... (because) they know there is a backup player sitting on the bench, waiting to take their position," Culverhouse said.
"They are a disposal commodity," she added. "There is a draft coming up every April and these players fight to hold on to their jobs and they welcome shots and anything else that will keep them on the field. This is, in my mind, inhumane, and I watched it since the early '70s, and I will tell you that it has not changed."
Dr. Andrew Tucker, team physician for the Baltimore Ravens, echoed Culverhouse's assertion that players are prone to hiding information about head injuries.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league will offer free follow-up medical work to 56 players who reported dementia, Alzheimer's disease or other memory-related problems in a recent survey that resulted in Wednesday's hearing. He also said the NFL will reach out to the players to see whether they are receiving money from the 88 Plan, which provides up to $88,000 a year to former players suffering from dementia, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, regardless of the cause.
The recent study, conducted for the NFL by researchers at the University of Michigan, suggested that retired pro football players may have a higher rate than normal of Alzheimer's disease or other memory afflictions. Lead author David Weir, who was among the witnesses Wednesday, has said the results show the topic is worth further study but they do not prove a link between playing football and later mental trouble - a point stressed by the NFL when the study was released.
Goodell said the health and welfare of all members of the "NFL family, particularly our retired players," is important to him. "Since becoming commissioner, I can think of no single issue to which I have devoted as much time and attention."
As for head injuries specifically, he said medical considerations must always trump competitive ones, and that the league has established a toll-free hotline for players if they believe they're being pressured to return to the field before fully recovering from a concussion or other head injury.
"All return-to-play decisions are made by doctors and doctors only," the commissioner said. "The decision to return to the game is not made by coaches. Not by players, not by teammates."
He also pointed to changes in rules aimed at reducing contact to the head and neck, the development of improved helmets, research and education.
The new head of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, said in prepared remarks obtained by the AP that the union "has not done its best in this area. We will do better."
He also criticized the NFL for diminishing studies that showed a connection between football injuries and post-career mental illness. Smith promised that the union's new concussion and traumatic brain injury committee will act as a "superconductor to commission, evaluate, follow and disseminate ongoing research."