Imagine that you worked many years for an employer — for good pay — only to find after retirement that your job exposed you to long-term health risks, including brain injury. Your former bosses protest that you were compensated well enough during your professional years that you need no additional compensation. Where do you turn?
A December 2011 New York Times story considers just that issue. At stake: the future care for over a hundred retired National Football League players and their spouses, who assert in a series of lawsuits that team owners, helmet manufacturers, and the NFL itself knew about the dangers of concussions during play — or, at least, they should have known about those dangers, yet looked away.
Larry Coben, an attorney with Anapol Schwartz, represents seven retirees, including famed Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon. In the New York Times article, he makes the case against the league in stark terms: “We believe that the long-term medical complications that have been associated with multiple concussions — such as memory loss, impulse anger-control problems, disorientation, dementia — were well documented, and that factually the N.F.L. knew or should have known of these potentially devastating neurological problems, and yet it didn’t take any active role in addressing the issue for players.”
The science of head trauma
The Times hints that the NFL’s defense against these lawsuits will be to claim that the NFL has always placed a high emphasis on safety. The evidence of this is mixed, however. The players and their attorneys argue that the NFL rejected conventional medical advice on head trauma, and in 2007 even informed players that “Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is treated properly.” They also claim the league’s doctors produced research — later discredited — that minimized the risks to players.
In fact, medical studies over the last decade have shown that football concussion injuries are associated with severe challenges later in life. Retired NFL players who had received concussions in their careers “reported more problems with memory, concentration, speech impediments, headaches and other neurological problems than those who had not,” as determined by a 2000 survey. A 2007 study found that multiple career concussions was linked to depression in NFL retirees at triple the rate of uninjured players. In 2009, a study found that Alzheimer’s disease and similar memory impairments may affect former NFL players at a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.
The changing climate of public opinion
The Times report suggests that public opinion may have a huge influence on these lawsuits. Certainly the NFL would like to dismiss the suits as mere nuisances, but the potential danger to the league’s image probably makes that impossible.
Recent legal controversies dealt with arcane issues — such as merchandising and antitrust exemptions — that were unlikely to stir the passions of everyday sports fans. A parade of retired football heroes testifying how NFL neglect lead to their mental disabilities would be different.
It would be a public relations disaster for the NFL. “The notion of retired players telling a jury the league is at least partly liable for their dementia and other cognitive disabilities is an entirely different matter, legal experts say, because the players’ testimonies are bound to get a sympathetic audience and cast a shadow over the league,” reports Ken Belson in the New York Times.
BRIEF: Larry Coben Takes on the NFL
Will Seau’s Death Impact Concussion Lawsuits? May 11, 2012.