NFL Players Association President Eric Winston told BuzzFeed News on Friday that players are not surprised by this week's revelation that the NFL interfered with the direction of funds for CTE research.
On Monday, a report by the Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce found NFL officials tried to steer "unconditional" funding for the National Institutes of Health away from a Boston University researcher who has been critical of the league's response to CTE. The Boston University study, which is researching CTE, was instead funded by taxpayers.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease has so far been found in the brains of 90 deceased former NFL players. CTE is believed to be caused by repetitive sub-concussive hits. Right now there is no method to diagnose CTE in the living.
A few NFL players spoke up on Twitter about the report on Monday, but Winston — an offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals who has been in the league for 11 seasons — said, "you're not going to see this outcry of condemnation from players because their attitude is like, 'Yeah, what did you think [the league was] doing?'"
On the subject of concussions, there "has always been a lot of mistrust in it," Winston told BuzzFeed News Friday. "Even before this, there was a lot of mistrust. The league says, 'Hey we're really looking out for your health, but we want you to play 18 games,' or, 'We want you to practice more in full pads.' They have a lot of contradicting statements. Those are things you reconcile as a player, that those things can't really exist together."
"It's a situation where I don't think it's that surprising for a lot of guys, frankly. They've seen the contrast and action already."
Winston, who has been NFLPA President since March 2014, says the league now is "totally different" than when he was a rookie in 2006.
Players and their families are more aware of the risks to their health, and Winston says he's seen an increase in players voluntarily removing themselves from games when they're injured. At one time, he remembers players would go get the smelling salts and head back onto the field, but now, there are "a lot more guys who raise their hands, say 'I'm not ok, and take themselves out."
"A lot of the young players understand it better than the older players because they've come into the league with awareness. The younger you are, the more sensitive you are to it," Winston says about long-term effects of injuries.
The topic of concussions and long-term cognitive health is not exactly an everyday locker room conversation, Winston says, but after the report on the NFL's involvement with the NIH, a few players in the Bengals locker room asked him to break it down for them.
"These are complicated issues and I think a lot of guys are confused by it, and I totally get that, so I definitely try to convey the bullet points: This is what happened, this is what it means, this is what you can do. It lends them to not only understand it but to ask more questions and be more involved. The worst thing we can do at the union is make it overly complicated."
Winston, who is an offensive tackle, a position particularly vulnerable for head injuries, says he hopes he does not face long-term consequences and hopes to have a long life. "But to say I'm 100% sure I'm fine is a little silly considering what has happened with other guys," he said.
"I think if you play this game today and you don't have some fear for your long term health, you're probably a little blind to what's happened already."