Last month in Philadelphia, thousands of retired professional football players filed a personal injury class action lawsuit against their shared former employer, the National Football League (NFL). Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is famous helmet manufacturer Riddell Sports, Inc. The heart of the suit is the rash of brain injuries that have come to light recently among players who have been out of the game for a number of years.
Former players claim that higher-ups in the NFL knew about links between playing professional football and potentially deadly long-term brain injuries like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Over 2,100 former pros are listed in the complaint, but the figure balloons to 3,356 when we include the families of those affected.
According to a report at The Huffington Post, the complaint reads: “The NFL, like the sport of boxing, was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results and the fact that some members of the NFL player population were at significant risk of developing long-term brain damage and cognitive decline as a result…Despite its knowledge and controlling role in governing player conduct on and off the field, the NFL turned a blind eye to the risk and failed to warn and/or impose safety regulations governing this well-recognized health and safety problem.”
The league argues that it has spent more than a billion dollars on pensions, disability benefits and medical benefits through its Players’ Association, but many players argue that though there is a structure in place to help pay bills, there is very little in the way of a support system.
Former Eagles running back Kevin Turner, recently diagnosed with ALS, says, “The NFL must open its eyes to the consequences of its actions. The NFL has the power not only to give former players the care they deserve, but also to ensure that future generations of football players do not suffer the way that many in my generation have.”
This changed on July 26, 2012, when the league rolled out a program called NFL Total Wellness. This includes a service that will provide free confidential consultations to former players and their families regarding signs of crisis, substance abuse problems and warning signs of suicide. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the program “will empower players to make positive health decisions [and] promote help-seeking behaviors in connection with behavioral and mental health issues.”
The impact of brain injuries among former players is widespread, and now these men and their families are seeking confirmation that the league knew about brain injury statistics and actively tried to keep them from the community of players. The fact that Riddell Sports, Inc. is also named in the suit suggests that players are suspicious of communication between the league and the helmet company for covering up any evidence of a connection between potential design flaws in players’ helmets and brain injuries later in life.