WASHINGTON - Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, lambasted the NFL on Wednesday during a congressional hearing on the long-term impact of football head injuries, indicating that the league had created a culture that often encourages players to stay in the game at the expense of their health.
"The team doctor is not a medical advocate for the players. The team doctor's goal is to get that player back on the field even if that means injecting the player on the field," Culverhouse told the House Judiciary Committee, adding that contracts, which reward performance during the season, also give players an incentive to underreport injuries.
"The players are at a point right now where they will not self-report because they need the money," Culverhouse said.
"They need those extra yards and those interceptions in order to make their salaries."
Football-related head injuries have gained national attention as studies - some controversial - and other scientific findings have shown that players may have an above-average chance of suffering from various forms of dementia later in life.
Culverhouse, 62, whose father, Hugh, was the team's first owner, was a Bucs executive from 1985 to 1994. The New York Times reported that Culverhouse has blood cancer and renal failure and has been told she has six months to live.
Over the years, Culverhouse said she witnessed players getting injections in their joints and being sent on the field again. She also cited the practice of using arm cuffs on dehydrated players during halftime to speed the absorption of IV fluids so they could return for the second half.
"I know this is against best medical practices," Culverhouse said in her written testimony. "I know the chaos in the locker room as players are mended and injected to get back on the field."
In that testimony, she referred to the Bucs' former doctor as she discussed problems with team physicians. She did not mention him by name, but Joseph Diaco, a general surgeon with orthopedic training, retired this year after 33 years with the team.
"The team doctor is hired in a variety of fashions," Culverhouse said. "Our doctor happened to be a fine golfer. Our coach was enamored by golf although he was not particularly good. They met on the golf course, hit it off and we had ourselves a general surgeon as a team physician. We were not unique as to how certain physicians became employed with teams."
Diaco said he met the Bucs' first coach, the late John McKay, on the sideline and got the team job after saving the life of a University of Tampa football player who had a ruptured spleen.
He said he never sent an injured player back in the game.
"We have no loyalty to the team," Diaco said. "We have loyalty to the players."
He said Culverhouse was not actively involved with the athletes or any medical decisions and was surprised Congress would consider her credible on the topic.
Although Culverhouse said it would be difficult for the NFL to mandate how owners structure their contracts, she recommended that an independent neurologist or neurosurgeon be at games to properly evaluate head injuries.
"Something needs to be done about this medical care. You cannot leave it in the hands of these team physicians to make these decisions," she said.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, even when pressed by the lawmakers, would not say whether he thought there was a link between football and cognitive decline among its players. He did say, "We are changing the culture of our game for the better," noting the league has increased pension, disability and medical benefits and established the 88 plan, which provides money to former players struggling with dementia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
Goodell said a medical expert could give a better answer than he could. But some House members complained that Dr. Ira Casson, chairman of the NFL's committee on concussions, had not testified.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.