The lawsuit that has pitted several thousand retired professional football players against their former employer, the National Football League, has been receiving a lot of press over the past few months–and it shows no signs of ending anytime soon. When this blog last reported on the case in August 2012, about 2,000 players were involved, claiming in their complaint, “The NFL, like the sport of boxing, was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results.” The number of plaintiffs, as of this month, has more than doubled to 4,500.
This comes on the heels of President Obama’s so-called “concussion conference” that took place in a packed East Room of the White House in late May which brought together scientists, doctors, representatives from professional football and soccer leagues, and congressmen and -women. A reporter from the New York Times thinks this gesture is too little, too late, asking, “Where were all of these people […] 20 years ago, when the NFL formed its first committee on mild traumatic brain injuries–the main subject of the conference?” She states elsewhere in her article that “it’s obvious that no one should have ever trusted the league to examine the safety of its own moneymaker.” This bears a striking resemblance to other topics this blog covers regularly, like allowing pharmaceutical companies to police the safety of their own products .
To casual observers of the story, the case ended in August of 2013, when the players and the league agreed upon a $765 million settlement intended to cover the medical costs of those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), dementia, chronic depression, and many other ailments. (The New York Times adds that the NFL’s annual revenue is about $10 billion.) But shortly after this agreement was announced, Judge Anita Brody, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia) says she needs to see more proof that these funds will in fact last for 65 years, or “the life of the settlement.” Since then, there has been relative silence from both sides.
Complicating matters is a study, published in May in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which compared MRI scans of concussed high school and college football players’ brains with those of young men who have never played the game. Researchers found that “those athletes in each group who had played the most seasons of football tended to have the least hippocampal volume,” which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotional processing. This suggests that “at least potentially, cumulative playing time and repeated tackles might affect the brain, even without a formal concussion.” Correlation, however, does not prove causation, so these scientists cannot prove that playing football directly led to this shrinkage of the hippocampus. However, though their scores on cognitive and coordination tests showed no relationship with hippocampus size, “the more years a subject had played football, the slower his reaction time tended to be.”
Though someone as prominent as President Obama has described NFL players as “grown men who choose to accept some risk to play a game that they love,” it seems clear that not every player fully understood the consequences of sub-concussive impacts. Sixty-eight year old Dallas Cowboys tackle Rayfield Wright, for instance, has headaches, seizures, and has even blacked out while driving. He even told an interviewer that if he knew how dangerous his chosen sport was, he would have kept playing basketball.
So while these studies and conferences are a step in the right direction for current and future athletes, there are tens of thousands of families already affected by injuries they sustained during years of playing the game. For them, the only thing allowing them adequate counseling and medical care is the help they may receive from the civil justice system.