In August, seven former NFL football players filed a lawsuit against the NFL related to the league’s handling of concussion-related injuries. Anapol Schwartz attorney Larry Coben, who has been involved in many traumatic brain injury cases before, is representing the players. The crux of the case is that for decades, the NFL has been training players to hit with their heads, while at the same time failing to properly treat them when that results in an injury and for concealing known links between football and brain injuries.
Today, many retired football players who were on NFL rosters in the 1970’ and 1980’s are suffering the effects of concussions that they experienced while out on the field. Many suffer from memory problems and describe a feeling of walking around in a daze. Several have even been diagnosed with dementia. These health problems have significantly affected the quality of life of the players, created mountains of medical bills, and have left many unable to continue working. The players claim that NFL’s benefit plan does not go far enough to care for players that suffer from dementia or related brain problems.
While the long-term health consequences of professional football are now clearly evident in players from several decades ago, the question of how many current players will be affected—and to what extent—remains unknown. In fact, according to Coben, “a primary focus of the Class Action claim is the need for the establishment of a Medical Monitoring Fund for both retired players and current/future players to allow for very specific periodic diagnostic testing and treatment when disabling symptoms start appearing (including impulsive anger, memory deficits, confusion, etc.).”
Over the last few years, information about the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury—particularly in the NFL—has begun to emerge. In 2009, the NFL started to encourage players to work with the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy which conducts autopsies on the brains of former athletes. The findings of brain damage in football players, boxers, and even hockey players have been disturbing. In 2010, information that the NFL had long-concealed about the long-term health effects of concussions became public, sparking the first lawsuit against the NFL in Los Angeles in July of this year.
The most recent filing in Philadelphia has big goals: it is the first lawsuit against the NFL to seek class-action status. That means it could potentially include anyone who ever played in the NFL and suffered a concussion or head injury. Coben, the attorney representing the players, indicates that “there will be additional lawsuits filed by former players over the next few weeks, taking a separate approach by bringing individual lawsuits for former players and the families of some players who have died as a result of the horribly destructive, progressive debilitating brain injury resulting from multiple concussions (and woefully inadequate follow-up) while playing NFL football.”
While football is an intense contact sport, that of course carries with it inherent dangers, this lawsuit raises serious questions about how many of those dangers are really unavoidable and which ones–namely concussions–might have been better managed if the League had acted more responsibly.