President Trump has been critical of the NFL’s steps to reduce brain injuries on the field. But today, his Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, stood next to a local football legend as he agreed to donate his brain to research. 

For years, linebacker Nick Buoniconti was feasome on the field during his NFL career, which included a stint on what was then called the Boston Patriots. Now 76-years-old, he choked up as he pledged to donate his brain for research. He was diagnosed with dementia in May, and his doctors suspect chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, may be contributing to his symptoms.

“This is not easy," Buoniconti said. "It’s difficult. I’m not half the man I used to be.”

Buoniconti acknowledged Dr. Ann McKee, who leads the BU center that’s studying the impact that concussions have on the brain. “I just want to thank her for all her dedication and her work, and ask the president to please support the CTE program.”

Of course, he was speaking about President Trump, who is supporting the BU Center, in that its research funding comes from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s because the VA is concerned about soldiers getting this kind of injury. But Trump took a slightly different tone on the subject in September when he spoke at a rally about the NFL’s efforts to reduce traumatic brain injuries on the field by penalizing hard hits.

“They had that last week," Trump said. "I watched for a couple of minutes and two guys, just really beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television, his wife is sitting at home, she is so proud of him. They're ruining the game!”

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin stood next to Buoniconti as he signed the agreement to donate his brain for CTE research. WGBH News asked Shulkin about the president's comments. Shulkin drew a distinction between injuries in soldiers and football players.

There's a difference. I don't think either the president or I feel that going and serving your country is a game," Shulkin said. "We take this very seriously. Young men and women coming back with these injuries, and everything possible that research can do and treatment can do, he is fully supportive of, as I am. Having elective choices to go out versus serving your country are two very different things."

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VA Secretary David Shulkin speaks with reporters on Friday.
Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

For the NFL's part, about five years ago, the league committed to supporting CTE research with a $30 million donation to the National Institutes of Health. But the NFL ended that agreementin August, with more than half of the money not yet spent. 

The VA says it is spending over $100 million to study the effects of brain injuries in returning soldiers.