NFL Accused of Hiding Concussion Damage from Players
Viewers of this year’s Super Bowl saw some great plays and big hits– there’s nothing quite like a defensive back lining up and laying out a wide receiver coming over the middle of the field to catch a pass. However, a growing body of research on concussions and their aftereffects is making it crystal clear that the football stars of today will be paying for their performance tomorrow, in the currency of memory loss, dementia and early death.
Now, hundreds of former players are lining up in lawsuits against the National Football League, claiming the league concealed evidence about the consequences of repeated concussions and didn’t do enough to keep the players safe. The big question facing NFL executives now is what did they know, and when did they know it?
- A number of lawsuits against the NFL to be consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia
- NFL players five times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s than average person
- Employers are required to take adequate safety measures to protect their employees
Failure to Warn and Protect
At least 14 lawsuits have now been filed against the NFL for fraud and negligence, claiming the league deliberately kept information about head injuries from players and the public. Many of the suits have been consolidated in a federal court in Philadelphia.
“This action arises from the defendants’ failure to warn and protect NFL players such as plaintiffs against the long-term brain injury risks associated with football-related concussions,” the lawsuit states. “This action arises because the NFL defendants committed negligence by failing to exercise its duty to enact league-wide guidelines and mandatory rules regulating post-concussion medical treatment and return-to-play standards for players who suffer a concussion and/or multiple concussions.”
The league has denied the players’ claims so far. “The NFL has never misled players with respect to the risks associated with playing football,” the league said in a statement. “Any suggestion to the contrary has no merit.”
A Violent Endeavor
The damaging effects of concussions are no longer in dispute. Most insidious is a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a kind of “brain plaque” that results from repeated blows to the head and leads to memory loss, depression, impaired impulse control, dementia and other problems. The disease has been increasingly showing up in autopsies of deceased boxers, hockey players and football players.
The NFL itself acknowledged two years ago that long-term effects of head injuries were a growing concern. “It’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems,” league spokesman Greg Aiello told the New York Times.
Football by nature is a violent endeavor, with the big hits going hand-in-hand with innumerable minor collisions that take place throughout the game. And players are well-compensated for the risks, with salaries running as high as tens of millions of dollars. The big question at hand is whether the league gave the players the information they needed to make an informed decision about taking on the risks of playing the sport, or whether the league withheld and distorted the nature of the potential consequences.
“If the NFL knew that exposure to a career of football physicality had a strong likelihood of causing brain injuries – and it had kept that knowledge secret – then it could potentially be held liable for failing to bring that information forth,” says Simon Johnson, an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio. “However, the flip side is that professional football players engage in a sport voluntarily and with knowledge that this physicality can cause career-ending injuries. As such, these professional athletes arguably assume the risks of injury associated with the sport. But whether or not they assume the risk of brain injuries that can only be caused by exposure to a career of football physicality remains to be seen. This depends in part on how much knowledge the NFL had and didn’t make public.”
A 2009 study by the University of Michigan found NFL players were five times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease than the average American. One in every three players is likely to suffer from some type of cognitive impairment.
Among the more prominent players who have been involved:
- Former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who claims to have sustained memory and emotional problems due to concussions he suffered during his playing days.
- Kevin Turner, once a fullback for the Philadelphia Eagles, has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He has little use of his hands and arms and has a prognosis of two to 10 years to live.
- Super Bowl champion quarterback Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears was involved in one of the first suits, filed last summer.
- Fearsome Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006 in what was a precursor to the head injury debate. An autopsy showed that at 44 years old, his brain tissue looked like that of an 85-year old with Alzheimer’s.
Consumer Point of View
The NFL lawsuits are high profile and high stakes, but in some ways the league is like any other employer in that they need to take reasonable steps to protect their workers. “If we look at other industries that pose significant risks of injury to employees, i.e. machinists, miners, and other factory workers, we find that employers are required to take safety precautions to prevent injury,” the attorney Johnson says. “The NFL is no different than these employers and has implemented safety measures of its own such as requiring the use of helmets, penalizing for certain types of tackles, and requiring a concussed player to receive special medical clearance before entering a game. The question is whether these safety measures are adequate.”
Risks can be encountered on the job in any profession, from a delivery driver navigating crowded city streets to a construction worker operating heavy machinery. Even people sitting behind a computer in an office confront the potential of ergonomic injury like carpal tunnel syndrome. In all cases, it is the responsibility of the employer to provide information about the risks inherent in the job so employees can make an informed decision about whether it’s worth the paycheck.
“Ultimately, an athlete who has the skills and ability to become a professional football player has a choice,” Johnson says. “That athlete can either assume the risk of potentially serious injury or avoid the risk altogether. The NFL should have an obligation to provide all available information to this potential athlete so that he can make a highly informed decision. The NFL also should have an obligation to adequately insure its employees’ health and life in the event that these foreseeable injuries do materialize.”