Analysts and fans of the game are rapidly coming to the conclusion that the NFL’s rush to introduce new safety measures, like outlawing helmet to helmet contact, has less to do with the number of that sport’s brain injuries than with protecting the league from potentially crippling lawsuits. The medical profession says the NFL should have seen this coming a long time ago.
For at least 10 years, documented medical research has catalogued the frightening toll of sports brain injuries on NFL players, but clear signals have been around for decades of the long-term damage being done. Now, players are fighting back, suing the league in ever increasing numbers. They say they should have been protected from the ultimate consequences of the skull-crushing impacts they endure on a weekly basis. Former NFL players, some of whom hadn’t even been diagnosed as having been concussed, have long been suffering from:
- Worrying memory lapses
- An inability to concentrate for extended periods
- Speech difficulties
- Sudden, unexplained and unprovoked angry outbursts
- Prolonged and severe bouts of depression
- Perhaps most worryingly, unusually early symptoms of Alzheimer’s
2009 Showed Brain Injuries were a Cause of Death for Athletes
The year 2009 was especially difficult for the NFL, as no fewer than eight NFL veterans’ autopsy results showed that each and every one of the former players who died far too early had suffered sports brain injuries so severe, their brains were literally gummed up with “destructive, protein-filled neural tangles” according to one medical source. They say this is a dementia-causing condition called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” or CTE, and that the most likely cause of the condition was repeated blows to the head.
Several of these ex-players died horrible and violent deaths, and each of them died while still quite young. For example:
- Terry Long, an ex-Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman, killed himself by guzzling anti-freeze one day. He was 45.
- Another Steelers lineman, Justin Strzelczyk, drove his truck into the back of a tractor-trailer while fleeing from police. He died at the age of 36.
- Andre Waters, former Cardinals defensive back, shot himself in the head at the age of 44.
- Earlier this year, former NFL star Junior Seau committed suicide at the age of 43. While there’s no official confirmation that one of the league’s most fearsome tacklers had a sports brain injury, one of his former teammates estimated that Seau may have suffered as many as 1,500 undiagnosed concussions during his career.
- Former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest in February, 2011. He asked in a note that his brain be preserved for research. Analysts later confirmed that Duerson, who had been suffering from memory loss and other symptoms, had degenerative CTE.
In spite of all these results being made known to the top NFL brass, the league still allowed players who had been concussed to return to action in the same game! The only stipulation at that time—2009—was that the player hadn’t completely blacked out. To add insult to the sport’s brain injuries, the NFL actually told players that year that there was “no evidence” of long-term harm from concussions, and worse, that they couldn’t give players a “magic number for how many concussion is too many.” The league also told players that any research being presented which said concussions could harm them in the long term was either flawed, premature, or just flat-out wrong.
Players Use the Courts to Fight Back
As late as October 28, 2009, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told a congressional hearing, “I think we’re doing a terrific job (managing concussions).” Less than five days later, Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis played his fifth game of the season with post-concussion syndrome that hadn’t even been diagnosed at that stage. A month later, Lewis would leave the game forever, and now he’s angry.
Lewis says the leagues deliberately misled him on the long-term dangers of sports brain injuries, and he’s not alone. In the last 10 months alone, no fewer than 2,200 former players, including more than 150 ex-Cleveland Browns players, have filed lawsuits against the NFL. Part of their claim is that the league knew—or should have known—about the dangers being faced, and worse, even when they had well-documented evidence, the NFL conspired to suppress the truth.
The league is now fighting for its financial life, and legal experts say it won’t be easy for the players to conclusively prove their claims, which the league itself are vigorously denying. Among the early defense arguments are:
- The NFL never set out to intentionally deceive players
- Sports brain injuries are part of the accepted risks of playing NFL football
- There’s no way for the players to prove that their sports brain injuries didn’t occur while playing high school or college football, or from some other sport or injury entirely
While the NFL wouldn’t discuss any specific lawsuits, they did issue a statement which said in part, “The NFL has never misled players with respect to the risks associated with playing football. Any suggestion to the contrary has no merit.”
The doctors are worried
Experts in sports brain injuries are worried; they see the problems associated with the injuries getting worse as players get bigger, stronger and faster, and the hits become increasingly violent. A brain researcher at Michigan’s Center for Neurological Studies, Dr. Randall Benson, has spoken of his concerns. “It’s ludicrous to think you can play in the NFL for one year—much less 15—at a position where you’re regularly contacting other players and not come out of it with a damaged brain,” Dr. Benson said, before adding, “We’ve got to keep these guys from blowing their heads off. It’s an epidemic.”
Both groups will call their experts; the players will be able to show that the league has known since the early 90’s of the potential long term damages caused by sports brain injuries, and the league will point to expert studies that they funded which were either inconclusive or actually came out and said that there was no evidence that concussion could lead to long term difficulties. One thing is certain; the game as it is played today will undoubtedly undergo major changes over the coming years, with player safety coming more to the fore in terms of rules, diagnoses and treatment. Some would say “it’s too late,” and others would say, “better late than never.”
In Oregon, hundreds of people—mostly those in the under-25 age group—suffer concussion in sports-related accidents every year. If this has happened to you or one of your children, it’s vitally important to have the injury checked by a specialist, even if the symptoms don’t seem that severe. Then, if the concussion was caused by someone else’s negligence, or a deliberately violent act, you should contact a reputable and reliable Portland brain injury attorney. They will guide you through the complicated process of determining the full extent of the injury, the potential consequences and your best course of action should you decide to file a lawsuit.