For the National Football League, it has been anathema to publicly admit that there was any type of correlation between the hits players took in the game and their later diagnoses of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. As one can imagine, acknowledging a link potentially opens a can of liability for the NFL and paves the way for an avalanche of claims from former players and their families.
The winds of change are blowing
However, earlier this month, the senior vice president for health for the NFL made a public acknowledgment that a link existed between the game of football and CTE. His unexpected admission was made at a Washington, D.C., roundtable discussion about the effect of concussions on football players.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy & Commerce convened a panel, and they were straightforward in their questioning. An Illinois representative asked bluntly, “Do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?”
Citing one researcher’s undeniable proof that there was a causative link, the NFL official said unequivocally, “[T]he answer to that question is certainly yes.”
No more denials?
The research in question was conducted by Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University, in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs. McKee is employed by the VA Boston Healthcare System as its chief of neuropathology. She discovered that, of 91 former NFL players in the study who are now deceased, 87 showed positive diagnoses of CTE. That is more than 95 percent; hard facts to deny in light of the gravity of the situation.
Perhaps even more troubling for football players at collegiate, high school and grade school levels, the study also postulates that “minor head trauma [i.e., a concussion] that occurs regularly in football may pose” an even higher risk to players than more infrequent, but brutal, impacts. Less than half — 40 percent — of the positive diagnoses were for defensive and offensive linemen, the positions most likely to be involved in the hardest hits on the field.
This new admission came as a shock, as one of the physicians on the NFL’s Head, Neck & Spine Committee said during a pre-Super Bowl press conference in February that there was no connection between degenerative brain disease and the game of football. He tried to waffle, he attempted to obfuscate and equivocate, but ultimately when pressed, he was still in full denial mode.
Admission raises questions
The admission marks the first time in seven years that the NFL conceded repetitive trauma to the head could result in neurological problems later. In 2009, the NFL spokesman didn’t specifically address CTE, but said in an interview with the New York Times that research indicated that suffering a concussion can be the root cause of “long-term problems” for players.
So why, as recently as last month, did the league persist in its denials? Part of the reason could be that not all league movers and shakers are aligned with the official’s admission. In fact, the official himself left a little wiggle room when he added this statement:
“I think the broader point, and the one that your question gets to, is what that necessarily means, and where do we go from here with that information.”
The NFL was quick to backtrack from the admission that “certainly” a link existed between the game of football and later CTE diagnoses. The spokesman for the NFL pointed out in their official statement only hours after the senior vice president uttered his admission that the league official stated more questions must be addressed.
Yet, the following day in another statement to a media source, the NFL again appeared to crawfish. The spokesman announced that they stood by their colleague’s remarks, and his words “accurately reflect the view of the NFL.”
Where do they go from here?
The comments may expose the NFL to additional litigation. The 2015 settlement from the league regarding the concussion lawsuit does not include each player who retired. It also falls short of specifically covering CTE. It’s likely that some players may take the admission and official statement as a green light to press on with claims related to concussion and CTE damage.
It’s also possible that this could be a turning point in the way the game is played. Equipment such as “safer helmets” have obviously failed to adequately protect these athletes’ most vulnerable organs — their brains.
NFL football is big money, bigger than most of us are able to conceive. It generates income and revenue into cities that are on economic life support. Nobody wants to pull the plug on pro football. But clearly, some changes are long overdue.
When does the risk begin?
No one wakes up one day and becomes a pro football player. Players are built, molded from childhood in youth leagues, through adolescence on high school teams, to young adults playing college ball on the field. They are screamed at by coaches and tested by fire, until the weak are culled and the unmotivated fall by the wayside. Only the strongest, the most stoic in the face of the hardest hits and the deepest pain, survive, and thrive, in the NFL.
But at what price is this glory? Can those seasons in the sun that blot out future decades be worth the price? And what is that price? What dollar value will be assigned to a promising future cut short? Who shall pay, and at what level does the liability begin?
The times, they are changing, and it’s likely that there will be many more claims from neurologically compromised footballers at various levels of the game. If you suffered a concussion playing football at the collegiate level, or are the parents of a high school age or younger athlete who was felled on the field by head trauma, it is possible that you have a legitimate claim for damages, both present and future.
Where to turn for help
This is uncharted legal and medical territory, and many suffering from CTE due to a concussion or other head trauma don’t know what to do, or that help may be available to them. Hiring a reputable attorney who makes it a priority to stay abreast of all new legal and medical developments in the field of sports concussions is a first step toward justice.