Players' Brain Injury Lawsuit Threatens the NFL's Long Term Prospects

Last Updated Jul 20, 2011 6:03 PM EDT

Seventy-five former football players are suing the NFL, saying the league concealed the risk of brain injuries for nearly a century. If true, this could radically alter the public's support of football and the league.

Roger Goodell must suddenly be feeling nostalgic for a labor dispute that hasn't even ended yet.

The suit claims the NFL has known since the 1920s about the harmful effects of concussions on players' brains, but that it concealed the information from coaches, trainers, players and the public. Particularly damning are claims that a 10-year study of concussions funded by the NFL found "no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects" from multiple concussions.

Also, a related study allegedly recommended that NFL players be allowed to continue playing on the day of a concussion, if they exhibited no symptoms and were cleared by a doctor. According to papers filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court:
For decades, defendants have known that multiple blows to the head can lead to long-term brain injury, including memory loss, dementia, depression and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and its related symptoms.
Post-mortem studies have found CTE in the brains of 14 of 15 former NFL players examined at Boston University School of Medicine Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy as of May. Among these was former Chicago Bears safety David Duerson, 50, who shot himself in the chest in earlier this year, leaving a note requesting that his brain be donated for study.

A league -- and a fan base -- in denial
Football has always depended on a certain level of denial about risk by both its fans and its players. Players have always faced the chance of permanent, crippling long-term injuries. That's why the average NFL player's career is about three years. Fans are insulated from this information by the media and their own desire to see football as a great and uplifting contest.

Despite all the talk of injuries when a player misses a game, the only time fans face the grueling physical consequences of playing football is when an exceptionally traumatic injury requires a player to be carried off the field. For a moment or two fans bow their heads with great solemnity and wish the "fallen warrior" well. Then the next play is called.

The ongoing research into CTE has already started to upend that romanticized view. Even if the charges about a multi-generational cover-up aren't true -- and conspiracies are damned hard to prove even when they exist -- the additional attention is going to cause an increasing number of people to have doubts about watching the game or letting their kids play it. It really makes it difficult to enjoy those Sports Center highlights of the hits of the day, doesn't it?

Protection or PR?
In the past year the NFL has done a lot to limit brain injuries. These include changing rules on how, when and where players can be hit, as well as introducing new tests and rules about in-game concussions. It also authorized studies to determine the quality of helmets worn by its players -- all though it may be difficult to take those seriously. This is either a wise action to protect the players or a wise action to cover the league's ass.
The brain-injury issue is the most-significant challenge football has faced since then-President Teddy Roosevelt saved the sport in 1905. Eighteen people died playing football that year, despite the fact that there were 20 times fewer players than today. Roosevelt summoned representatives of what was then the Big Three in football -- Harvard, Yale and Princeton -- and told them to change the rules. They did, doing away with gang tackles and introducing the forward pass. This had the desired effect of cutting down on on-field deaths, although as we now know it didn't prevent other serious, less-noticeable injuries.

Since then, players have worn an increasing amount of padding. Ostensibly added to protect them, it has actually had the opposite result. Because players are so heavily armored, they can inflict far more damage than they would otherwise. Consider the fact that rugby is far safer. It is played with just as much passion, but the uniforms consist of shorts and a shirt.

I am a football fan myself. I've been following the Patriots since 1972. It won't be easy to give up watching, but it's a lot a harder to think of the on-field action as a game these days.

Even if hockey fans don't know it yet, they face a similar dilemma.

Related:
  • Constantine von Hoffman On Twitter»

    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

Comments

Market Data

Market News

Stock Watchlist