The Ugly Truth Behind The NFL Concussion Battle
As I sat down at my computer this week with some desperately needed free time on my hands, I was all set to begin an article depicting the NFL as a gigantic scapegoat in the recent concussion lawsuits being filed against them. It just didn’t make sense to me. These players knowingly and willingly participated in a contact sport where injuries occurred on a regular basis. Not only that, they reveled in delivering big hits on their opponents.
Should they not bear the responsibility of their actions? After all, if a knee injury could leave a lasting effect on your life, it would only make sense that repeated trauma to the head (and brain) could do the same thing. It would be like a boxer suing someone else for injuries they sustained in the ring. They made their choice.
Then I started do my research. I knew I didn’t have the whole story, and my better judgment told me I should at least understand exactly what the former players were charging the NFL with.
Let me tell you first that it wasn’t easy to find the information I was looking for, and I still haven’t exhausted all my searches. If you ask me, part of my own previous ignorance about the situation stems from a lack of details presented by the major media outlets. I sifted through dozens of articles naming the players involved in filing these lawsuits, but few if any of them actually explained the claims against the NFL. The only thing I knew was that it had something to do with concussions.
And then I started to find some trails of gold.
The first big nugget I stumbled across was the blog site NFL Concussion Litigation. It’s publisher, Paul D. Anderson, is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, where he focused on Sports Law, Class Actions, Labor & Employment Law, and Business Litigation. His purpose, according to the site, is to provide “up-to-date coverage and legal analysis of the lawsuits filed by former NFL players against the NFL regarding its alleged concealment of the risks associated with concussions.”
A lot of the content can get very technical, though there are some posts that just about anyone would understand. One of the aforementioned articles is “Op-Ed: The NFL Concussion Crisis & The Doctor-Patient Relationship,” which takes a look at how team doctors actually operate within a franchise. While I won’t get into the details here, I highly recommend reading the article, since the sideline physician is a key element in the debate.
After taking some time to browse through the blog, I finally found what I had been looking for. “Will the NFL Concussion Lawsuits Be a Game Changer?” is a post that takes the case back to the beginning of this whole debacle: 1994 and the creation of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBIC).
The NFL, after a wave of head injuries to star players like Troy Aikman and Steve Young, created the MTBIC to study the effects of concussions and to implement rules and guidelines to protect players from concussions. Then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed Dr. Elliot Pellman to lead the committee, while Drs. Ira Casson and David Viano also became prominent figures among the group.
The neurological community, meanwhile, was conducting similar studies, and they widely disagreed with the results of Dr. Pellman’s research.
Pellman at one point wrote that “many NFL players can be safely allowed to return to play on the day of injury” and that “the current decisionmaking of NFL team physicians seems appropriate for return to the game after a concussion.”
The Second International Conference on Concussion in Sport, which met in Prague in 2004, came to a different conclusion: “When a player shows ANY symptoms or signs of a concussion … the player should not be allowed to return to play in the current game or practice … When in doubt, sit them out!”
Beginning in 2003, Pellman and his committee members published a long-running series on concussions in the scholarly journal Neurosurgery. Their sixth paper released by the journal in 2004 concluded that NFL players did not show a decline in brain function after suffering concussions and players with three or more concussions endured no ill effects. The printed reviews from peer scientists that followed were extremely harsh and considered the studies to be “flawed beyond belief.”
There was also this 2007 interview of Dr. Ira Casson on HBO’s “Real Time Sports.”
If you want to learn more about the history of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and their dubious research methods, I HIGHLY recommend reading “Doctor Yes.” Written by Peter Keating, the story was printed in ESPN The Magazine in 2006. It is a rather lengthy piece, but every paragraph is worth the time to read it. Your mind will be blown away at some of the allegations against Dr. Pellman and his fellow committee members.
As for how things have progressed since, Commissioner Roger Goodell deserves a lot of credit for trying to turn around this culture of denial in the NFL when it comes to concussions. In 2007, he began to retool their approach to concussion research and mandated baseline neuropsychological testing for all players.
It might be a “cover your ass” approach to the situation, but one can only imagine how much stronger the former players’ lawsuits would become without these steps to remedy things.
Goodell can be called a lot of things, but indifferent to player safety is not one of them.
In a sense, the “cover up” has become worse than the crime itself. Roger Goodell should be quite familiar with this type of indictment considering how he has delivered punishment in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. Recently signed Packers lineman Tony Hargrove received an 8-game suspension not only for his involvement in the bounties, but also for previously lying to investigators.
Had the NFL not repeatedly and emphatically denied the link between concussions and chronic brain disease, we would probably not be seeing even half of these charges being brought against them. Unfortunately for the NFL, Dr. Pellman and the others involved in the MTBIC cannot be target specifically in the lawsuits since they were acting under the supervision and employment of the league. (Though if judgment is rendered against the NFL, they could seek indemnification from the doctors.)
Now, do I believe the players bear no responsibility for what they do on the field? No. Since Roger Goodell’s movement to make the game safer for players, I don’t think he or the NFL can be held accountable for not doing enough to protect and inform the players. It’s the decade or so before his time that is the real crux of the issue.
Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in educating you as much as I’ve educated myself in this matter. It’s not nearly as clean of a case as I once thought, and the NFL has some serious sludge on its hands that it hasn’t been able to clean off.
I couldn’t tell you how I think this will go, since more information is being presented each day. And as with most legal battles, it will come down to technicalities and jargon that I have little experience with. Being more educated, though, has helped me see the situation in a truer light and more ready to process whatever else does come along.
Because this debate is far from over, and it’s only going to get uglier.
(So far, the list of former Green Bay Packers players to file lawsuits against the NFL numbers 8 total: Leroy Butler, Mark Chmura, Santana Dotson, MacArthur Lane, Tootie Robbins, Dorsey Levins, Tiger Greene, and Don Majkowski. The total number of players that have filed concussion-related lawsuits is nearing 1,800.)——————Follow @ChadToporski