By Jeffrey Kluger
Updated: March 15, 2016 2:29 PM ET
IDEAS
Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

There weren’t a whole lot of people who applauded tobacco executives back in 1999 when they finally admitted that, darn it all, inhaling toxic smoke directly into your lungs for your entire adult life may be bad for you after all. There haven’t been many more people who have jumped to congratulate the oil companies in recent years as they began to acknowledge that, hey, setting fire to 90 million barrels of oil every single day might not be the greatest thing for the environment.

Similarly, nobody should spare so much as a word of praise for the National Football League’s belated admission that yes, very large men who run at one another very hard, colliding with an impact that can exceed 100 times the force of gravity (a roller coaster rarely exceeds 6 g’s) may—who’d have thought it?—suffer brain damage as a result.

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The NFL’s sorta’-kinda’ teeny-tiny, late-in-coming mea culpa occurred in a Congressional hearing on March 14 when Illinois representative Jan Schakowsky asked Jeff Miller, the league’s senior vice president for health and safety, a straightforward question:

“Mr. Miller, do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]?”

Miller responded: “The answer to that question is certainly yes.”

That passes for courage in the world of the modern NFL—but it’s worth stressing that we’re grading on a very generous curve. This is the same NFL, after all, that as recently as Super Bowl week in February, sent forward Dr. Mitch Berger, a member of its Head, Neck and Spine Committee, to address the same question about the same link. His answer, after repeated hedging and ducking, was a simple “No.” In a follow-up interview with TIME’s Sean Gregory, Berger acknowledged an “association” between the game and brain trauma, but would not say playing led to CTE and other brain injuries.

The league as a whole has never been remotely as straightforward as Miller was on Monday. In response to a number of questions emailed to the NFL office by TIME, however, spokesman Brian McCarthy did respond with a partial transcript of Miller’s testimony and a one-line statement: “The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL.”

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Football’s reluctance to admit the truth would not come as a surprise to NFL veteran Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012 and was found, in an autopsy, to suffer from CTE. It would not come as a surprise either to NFL veteran Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011 and was found to suffer from CTE. The same would be true of NFL veteran Adrian Robinson, Jr. who committed suicide in 2015 at age 25 and…it’s clear where this is going.

Indeed, of the 94 brains of NFL players studied post-mortem by Boston University neuropathologists, 90 have been found to be in various stages of CTE—a disease characterized by the accumulation of what are known as tau proteins, which cause the same kind of slow-motion degeneration as the brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease do. (CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously.) The cumulative damage from blows to the head is believed to start early, in college, high school and even Pop Warner football, and it’s not always full-blown concussions that do the damage. One study by neuroscientist Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina found that a college player may suffer from 950 to 1,100 sub-concussive blows per season—hits that don’t cause loss of consciousness but do damage all the same.

But it’s the NFL, with full-grown men playing a high-speed game, that really ups the risk potential. The average weight of an NFL guard and tackle is now 310 pounds (141 kg). At the NFL’s 2015 scouting combine for college players, all but three of 52 offensive linemen tipped the scales at above 300 lbs. The heaviest was 355 lbs. The runt of the litter was 292 lbs. You can get bigger, stronger and faster and learn to shake off hits to the body, but the physics of cranial acceleration don’t change. Collisions—even if they are body to body and not head to body or, worse, head to head—cause the brain to bounce violently forward and back again inside the skull, causing the swelling and tissue tearing that lead to CTE.

The NFL should know this. The NFL should have known it for a long time.

It is, surely, in the sport’s long-term interests—to say nothing of the interests of the players who give their bodies and brains to the game—for the NFL to get right with the truth. The alternative is for league officials to suffer the same kind of infamy as tobacco executives who, in 1994, jointly denied to a Congressional committee that cigarettes were addictive. When former Congressman Henry Waxman asked then R.J. Reynolds chairman about the toll of tobacco, a historically shameful exchange followed:

“How many smokers die each year from smoking?” Waxman asked.

“I do not know how many,” Johnston responded.

“Do you agree that smoking causes heart disease?”

“It may.”

“[Doctors] agree that smoking causes lung cancer. Do you agree?”

“It may.”

“The medical experts agree that smoking causes emphysema. Do you agree?”

“It may.”

And in response to the first question—how many smokers die of cancer each year—Johnstone added that death tolls are “generated by computers” and “there have been no laboratory studies which have been able to confirm any statistics.”

The families of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson and Adrian Robinson surely do not see their lost sons and husbands and fathers as statistics, and nor do the families of all of the other players who died with CTE, suffer from it now or will develop it in the future. The NFL is estimated to be a $63 billion dollar industry. But money has never bought decency. It is up to the men and women who run the league to find that for themselves.

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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