Numerous new outlets have reported recently on the many lawsuits filed against the National Football League, accusing the league of hiding information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries. Among the illnesses cited were dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The latest news is that on June 7 attorneys filed paperwork in federal court in Philadelphia asking that some 81 lawsuits involving more than 2,200 former players as plaintiffs be consolidated into one massive action, setting up a huge and potentially costly case for the NFL. The total number of plaintiffs, including spouses, other family members and representatives of former players, comes to more than 3,300 individuals.
“The NFL must open its eyes to the consequences of its actions,” said Kevin Turner, a former running back with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles who has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). “The NFL has the power not only to give former players the care they deserve, but also to ensure that future generations of football players do not suffer the way that many in my generation have.”
Helmet maker Riddell Inc. has also been named as a defendant in these actions. The suit accuses the NFL of “mythologizing” and glorifying violence through the media, including its NFL Films division.
In the 1970s, during eight years as a safety with the Atlanta Falcons, Charles “Ray” Easterling lived in a world bound only by the rules and dimensions of the football field. By last August, Easterling’s world was limited to the walls of his Richmond, Va., ranch by a brain so battered he forgot why he walked into a room by the time he got there. Easterling, despondent over the progress of his dementia and the looming need for institutional care, killed himself on April 19, 2012, at age 62.
In August 2011, Easterling, his wife and six other retired NFL players, including ex-Eagles quarterback Jim McMahon and offensive lineman Gerry Feehery and four spouses, sued the NFL seeking lifetime medical monitoring for ex-players. The suit contends that the NFL concealed the cumulative effect of multiple concussions from players.
The players hope that the lawsuit ultimately forces the NFL to be responsible for all long-term care of players suffering from chronic health problems related to traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
“The NFL, like the sport of boxing, was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results and the fact that some members of the NFL player population were at significant risk of developing long-term brain damage and cognitive decline as a result,” the mega suit charges.
“Despite its knowledge and controlling role in governing player conduct on and off the field, the NFL turned a blind eye to the risk and failed to warn and/or impose safety regulations governing this well-recognized health and safety problem.”
Predictably, NFL officials continue to deny any liability in this area, citing the many health programs it runs for current and former players, and a series of medical benefits to former NFL players to help them after football. “The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so,” the league said in a statement. “Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s many actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
The league added that in partnership with the NFL Players Association it has spent more than $1 billion on pensions, medical and disability benefits for retired players.
Momentum has been building for some time to hold the NFL accountable in this area. Former All-Pro defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide on February 17, 2011. His brain was donated by his family for research and found to have been suffering from TBI. Just recently on May 2, former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau was found dead in his San Diego area home, the victim of a suicide.
All three of these individuals were reported as having engaged in erratic behavior often associated with people suffering from the long-term effects of concussions. Recent research has also suggested a positive link between the incidence of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) among former football players, such as Turner, and TBI.
Attorneys for plaintiffs say they are not trying to bankrupt the NFL. They simply want recognition of the problem and for the NFL to step forward to help the suffering players and their families cope with the huge financial costs associated with their conditions. They also want the sport made safer for present and future players.
The fact remains, however, that these lawsuits have the potential to wreak financial havoc on the league and its owners. The league has asked that all of these lawsuits be dismissed because they are preempted under federal labor law by the collective bargaining agreement with the players. It is in fact true that a recent lawsuit filed by retired players alleges that they were unfairly left out of the recent talks that led to last year’s labor agreement. The judge in that case ruled that they had no standing to contest anything dealing with collective bargaining and that their “agent” is the players union.
That, of course, angers retired players who have been trying for several years to get help from the union in pursuing better treatment from the league on disability issues.
Thousands of families scattered across the country are quietly leading desperate lives as they seek to cope with post-football injuries affecting ex-players. The current litigation may turn out to be more important than any NFL game any of these players ever played in. The future of football as we know it could also be at stake.
Dr. Greg Tyler, Esq., is The Sport Digest editor and the Library Director/Archivist at the United States Sports Academy. Before joining the Academy, Tyler practiced law for a number of years. He also currently teaches online classes on sports issues at the Academy and in the past Tyler has lectured on intellectual property law.