Logically, it seems irrefutable that NFL football is a sport that is dangerous for its players. They are required to literally throw themselves at one another in order to stop the other side from advancing, which is why they wear so much protective gear, including helmets. However, the NFL has repeatedly denied that serious, chronic, and debilitating head trauma is a result of the sport even as they face lawsuits from thousands of players who have suffered from head injuries on the field.
Part of the issue is that, while injuries to muscles and joints can be quantitatively measured, it’s much more difficult to determine how much damage is caused from a head injury and when or if it’s safe for a player to return to the field. The NFL has traditionally downplayed head injuries, sending players back in who may still be fragile—and the players themselves are eager to return for the sake of job security in a highly competitive field—as well as denying compensation to players for debilitating brain injuries. But now those policies are coming back to haunt the NFL, which is facing hundreds of lawsuits for negligence, fraud, and concealment.
Here’s some background, plus the latest news on the NFL Concussion Lawsuit:
The NFL has always downplayed and even denied any link between professional football and long-term brain injuries. They have held this position despite the fact that dozens of football players have suffered permanent disability from injuries sustained during games. In a recent speech, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell pointed out links between brain disease and performance enhancing drugs, saying he’d like to see testing for human growth hormone introduced into the league, which smacks of passing the buck.
The players and their families are challenging the NFL’s stance on head injuries, however, and new research seems to back them up. In September, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Center for Disease Control, released a study showing that men who played NFL football for at least five years between 1959 and 1988 disproportionately developed Alzheimer’s or Lou Gherig’s diseases. It also indicated that men playing positions more prone to high-speed collisions on the field were three times as likely to have died from a neurodegenerative disease. This study is significant for the thousands of former NFL players suing the league for damages resulting from concussions and head injuries—a class action suit that could cost the NFL billions.
Recent events on both sides could affect the outcome of the lawsuit. For example, it was recently revealed that the NFL’s Retirement Board paid out $2 million in disability benefits to at least three former players, even as the NFL denied risks of long-term brain damage from playing the sport. Some experts call the revelation of the payouts a “smoking gun,” essentially an admission that players have been permanently damaged on the field and are deserving of compensation. However, league spokesmen say that the NFL Retirement Board is an independent entity from the league itself and its decisions do not reflect NFL policy—or, presumably, guilt.
Meanwhile, according to the former players involved in the lawsuit, by creating the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994, the NFL “acted as the nerve center for concussion research and policy” and knew full well the long-term risks to players. Yet, between 2003 and 2009, members of the Committee wrote that “no NFL player” had ever suffered long-term brain damage from concussions. They also stated that, “professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.” It is on the basis of these statements that plaintiffs claim the NFL is guilty of negligence, fraud, and concealment.
Plaintiffs and Defendants
The NFL also claims that liability lies not with the league but with the individual teams that employ the players. It is possible that, as the case moves forward, additional defendants will be named, including individual teams, the NFL Players Association, the Retirement Board, team doctors, and potentially even trainers. Currently, over 30% of former players have sued the NFL for concussion-related injuries, but it is estimated that the number could reach as high as 50% before it’s over.