It seems that nearly everyday, a new lawsuit is filed against the National Football League by groups of former players who allege that they have suffered debilitating brain injuries as a result of the policies and practices of the NFL.
With the 2012 NFL Draft just hours away, hundreds of future pro football players are eagerly waiting to discover where they’ll begin their pro careers. Broadcasts of each annual draft commonly feature footage of the newly-minted pros as they receive congratulatory phone calls from their future employers. The sheer ecstasy displayed by the players as they become a part of the NFL, and learn which uniform they’ll wear next year, makes for pretty compelling television for sports fans.
Likewise, many football players on the other side of their NFL careers have also recently begun a new chapter in their football lives. However, in stark contrast to the celebratory optimism of the draft, these players have embarked on a journey that is anything but cheerful.
Over the past several months, more than 1,600 former NFL players have filed suit against the NFL, essentially alleging that the NFL knew of the risks associated with concussions, but failed to take steps to protect the players from those risks. More specifically, the suits allege that the NFL failed to warn the players of the risks associated with concussions, failed to provide proper treatment and monitoring after concussions were sustained, and taught and encouraged tackling techniques that increased the incidence of concussions. The players allege permanent injuries from concussions, ranging from dizziness and headaches to memory loss, dementia, depression, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (a neurological degenerative disease found in individuals who have been subjected to repetitive traumatic head injuries). These lawsuits have become so prevalent, there is now a website devoted to tracking them, www.nflconcussionlitigation.com.
As a football fan and an attorney who frequently practices in the area of insurance defense, my knee-jerk reaction when I first heard of such suits was cynical. Didn’t these grown men understand the risk inherent in playing such a violent game? Even if they didn't fully appreciate the risk, will they really contend that they would not have played pro football had they known? Indeed, even with today’s increased knowledge of concussion risk, there are hundreds of players who will eagerly accept the job offers coming their way this weekend. In fact, I haven’t heard of a single high-profile college football player who, due to the risk of concussion, passed up the opportunity to play pro football in favor of a safer career.
On the other hand, it is indisputable that many former NFL players suffer from horrific repercussions of repeated head trauma. Several former players have taken their own lives, opining in suicide notes that their problems were attributable to brain injuries sustained on the football field. Those who continue to live with such symptoms relate major cognitive and emotional struggles as they try to cope with life. Such stories are far too common to be considered anomalous or coincidental.
In light of the prevalence of such cases, one must ask what the NFL – the most popular and lucrative sports league in the United States – did in order to protect players from such common symptoms. If the NFL was aware of the long term risks of concussions but concealed that knowledge from the players, or if the teams coerced players to engage in conduct that increased the risk of brain injury, shouldn’t the NFL bear liability to its former employees who now suffer so greatly as a result? While the NFL has recently begun to emphasize player safety, one must ask why it took so long to enact such measures. As an associate of a firm with a significant personal injury practice, I can’t help but believe that the NFL should be held accountable if the allegations of the players’ complaints prove true.
I’m sure I’ll tune in to the draft tonight, at least to see the Ravens’ selection. But this year, beyond thinking about the accomplishments of the players and their joy at making it to the NFL, I know I’ll also be wondering if these players appreciate the inherent risks of their future careers, and whether they’ll turn to the Courts if those risks lead to injury. I suspect the league office will be wondering the same thing.