The violent nature of professional football returned to the spotlight Thursday as thousands of former players affected by concussions teamed up for a legal fight against the NFL that could last years.
A lawsuit unifying more than 80 cases by more than 2,000 former NFL players was filed Thursday in Philadelphia, accusing the league of hiding information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries.
Of those players, at least 125 played at some time for the Chiefs, including three members of the club’s Hall of Fame, guard Ed Budde, defensive tackle Curley Culp and defensive end Art Still.
Plaintiffs hope to hold the NFL responsible for the care of players suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions. Helmet-maker Riddell, Inc. also is named as a defendant.
“That was the plan all along, to put all the lawsuits in one package,” Culp said. “I have two concerns — they’re going to do something about making the game safer as the rules are concerned, and maybe do something with the equipment.”
The lawsuit has punctuated a turbulent offseason for the NFL, particularly in the area of violence. The league has spent the past few months dealing with the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal as well as the suicide of former star linebacker Junior Seau.
Seau’s death may or not be related to a concussion, as suicides of some other players, including former Bears safety Dave Duerson and Falcons safety Ray Easterling, but it reflected the difficulties some players have in adjusting to life after football.
“The one thing I am in it for is some of my teammates and good friends are losing their lives and a lot of their faculties and I want the awareness to be known that there is a direct correlation to concussions,” said Mark Collins, who played for the Chiefs in 1994-96 after spending eight years with the New York Giants. “I want the fans to know about it, and I think the NFL is seeing there is a correlation to it.
“When I got into this game, like others, from junior high all the way through to college and pros, we were told, ‘You may walk away from this game with a broken leg or a busted knee or a broken this or broken that,’ but we were never told that concussions were part of the deal. We were told the helmet would protect us. You find out later in life it is not protective.”
According to the lawsuit, 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.
“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.”
The league has denied similar accusations in the past and issued a statement on Thursday saying: “The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. 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 reason the cases — 86 have been filed in the past 10 months — were merged in what is called a master complaint was to expedite judicial efficiency.
“There are so many different claims, it’s more efficient to bring it in front of one judge,” said Paul D. Anderson, an attorney who operates the website NFLConcussionLitigation.com. “That way Roger Goodell doesn’t have to fly all around to several different forums. All the lawyers can get together. There are more than 50 plaintiffs lawyers at least with various skills, and this is a way to get them all together and work together.”
The first decision federal district judge Anita Brody will make sometime in the next few months is whether these lawsuits even belong in court. The NFL has filed a motion that any potential claims must be made under the labor agreement’s grievance procedure and are pre-empted by the collective-bargaining agreement with the players.
“It’s a pretty difficult argument,” Anderson said. “The law is not clear on it. Half the case law is on the NFL’s side, and half the case law is on the players’ side. The merits of the lawsuit and the injuries and damages that are going to have to be proved in front of a jury aren’t going to be discussed.
“Right now, there is an upfront, technical legal argument. The NFL is arguing that this is fundamentally a labor dispute, and these claims don’t belong in court and should be heard in front of an arbitrator. Judge Brody’s decision will probably not be made until 2013.”
In the meantime, the lawyers for the plaintiffs are doing all they can to win in the court of public opinion. They held a teleconference on Thursday that included Easterling’s widow, Mary Ann; and former NFL running back Kevin Turner, who has been diagnosed with ALS, a condition some have linked to head trauma.
“Nothing gets me steamed quicker,” Turner said, “than seeing the NFL, as late as 2007, with their head neurologist saying one-word answers to journalists asking about the connection between head trauma and some of these diagnosis Parkinson’s and dementia and kept saying there was nothing to do with it.
“I want the NFL to stand up and be accountable for its actions. That’s how we can prevent more people from suffering and keeping this great game that has plenty of benefits, but we can make it safer. I’m hoping that’s what we do.”
Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly wonders how the players can specifically target the NFL.
“How do you know the problems you have,” Casserly said, “came as a result of playing in the National Football League on a particular hit?”
The NFL finds itself in the difficult position of balancing the way it promotes the game’s physicality and celebrates big hits while protecting the safety of its athletes. During the past two seasons, Commissioner Roger Goodell has handed out several hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to players for illegal hits, including multiple offender James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In addition, the Saints’ head coach, Sean Peyton, and top linebacker, Jonathan Vilma, were given season-long suspensions for participating in a scheme that paid cash bounties for knocking opposing players out of games with violent tackles. Gregg Williams, an Excelsior Springs native who was the Saints’ defensive coordinator at the time, was given an indefinite ban from the NFL for his role in the scandal.
“There needs to be a cleansing of the James Harrison mentality in the NFL,” said Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based sports business consulting firm, Sportscorp Ltd. “Not just for the players in the NFL, but for the players in college, in high school, in youth football who emulate the NFL stars. You can have great physicality, great athleticism without these kinds of head-on collisions.
“Is the reason for the NFL’s popularity, these very strong collisions that often that lead with the head? That is so overstated. Fans watch the NFL primarily because of the competitiveness of the games. This is not the Ultimate Fighting Championship. This is not the World Wrestling Federation. This is not professional boxing. Roger Goodell is incredibly moral and ethical, and he wants to be able to reduce the injuries to players across the board, and in particular head injuries.”
Neither Anderson nor Ganis believe the concussion lawsuit will bring the NFL to its knees.
“The NFL is a $9 billion industry and projecting $20 billion of revenue by 2020,” said Anderson, “but there could be a global settlement later down the road, and I don’t think it’s going to bring them to their knees. It’s the biggest sport in all of America. They have the money.
“But they also have a really good legal argument. Why give up when you have the law partially on your side right now? Morally, no doubt. All these tragic stories pull at the heartstrings of most people. But the law can be a different animal.”
Ganis put it more succinctly.
“It’s a hot issue now,” Ganis said. “Next year there will be a different issue.”