Brain trauma likely to be question after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s State of the League address

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Credit: Jonathan Daniel

LAS VEGAS — It is America’s most popular pro sports league, but the NFL isn’t without its problems — chief among them being brain trauma suffered by players past and present, something that Commissioner Roger Goodell is likely to be asked about Friday.

Goodell will give his State of the League speech on Friday, an annual pre-Super Bowl event in which he talks about the NFL’s accomplishments and challenges over the past year and going forward. But even more heavily anticipated is when he takes questions from the press.

One year ago, the media’s attention centered on whether the New England Patriots improperly inflated footballs and, if so, who was to blame. That topic may come up again Friday, given the NFL is still fighting Patriots star QB Tom Brady in court to uphold its four-game suspension levied after the Wells Report found it “more probable than not that he was at least generally aware” of “inappropriate activities.”

Still, a bigger issue this year — though it’s actually been on the radar for years — is what happens to players’ brains when they’re on the gridiron.

This week, Boston University researchers revealed that former Oakland Raiders great Ken Stabler suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, which the school describes as a progressive degenerative brain disease found in those with a history of brain trauma.

And Stabler was hardly alone.

Last September, BU and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported 87 of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science also had CTE. This does not mean that this high a percentage of football players is at risk for the disease — these are only voluntary cases, after all — but it does suggest that the problem is significant.

And there have been other prominent examples like former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill, one-time San Diego Diego Chargers standout Junior Seau and then 25-year-old Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who a doctor said likely had CTE when he shot and killed his girlfriend then himself in 2012.

It’s one that the NFL has been pushed to address after former players filed a class-action lawsuit claiming they suffered health woes tied to repeated head trauma. A settlement approved last spring by a federal judge provided up to $5 million per retired player with serious symptoms.

The league has also taken steps to address current players, like having independent experts at each game who can order a player off the field if they suspect they’ve suffered a concussion.

–Story by CNN’s Greg Botelho