In 2013, more than four thousand former NFL players settled a class action suit against their former employer for $765 million, alleging that the league knew about the long-term risks associated with sub-concussive and concussive injuries. Many of these men–battling problems like chronic depression, dementia, ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), and Parkinson’s disease–are now joined in a separate suit by more than 200 former players from the NHL claiming similar wrongdoing. Though only 200 players have signed on explicitly, “the litigation effectively covers the estimated 5,000 living, former NHL players,” according to the New York Times. Two stories have been in the news lately regarding the former hockey players.
First, ten-year NHL veteran Steve Montador, who had hired an attorney and planned to join the growing class, died at the age of 35 of what appears to be natural causes (foul play and suicide have apparently been ruled out). Montador was a defenseman, well known for his aggressive style of play and for his history of concussions on the ice (he was also in 66 fights while he was in the league). He also remarked that he suffered with depression in the final years of his life. As the Times also explained, his brain was donated to scientific researchers after his death. If there is evidence that Montador had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (also called CTE), he would join at least two other hockey players and many more football players to have been diagnosed posthumously with the degenerative ailment.
About a month later, a judge in Minnesota rejected the NHL’s motion to dismiss the case. According to a New York Times article on this new development, the players argue that “the league had the knowledge and resources to better prevent head trauma, failed to properly warn players of such risks and promoted violent play that led to their injuries.” The judge agreed, writing that the players “adequately alleged that the NHL negligently or fraudulently omitted information on an ongoing basis.”
The NHL is digging in, claiming that the suit should be thrown out based upon collective bargaining agreements. Because players enter into such an agreement when they join the league, the NHL alleges, the case is a matter to be decided by the National Labor Relations Board. And under such an arrangement, tort claims can only be made within six years of an incident, meaning that many players who are now included in the class should not be. Attorneys for the league argue that since there is no “‘aha’ event here that starts the clock running,” there is no way to prove that specific hits to the head led to players’ problems later in life.
Players point to the fact that the NHL did nothing to reduce the number of concussions even while it ran a long-term study on head injuries from 1997 to 2004. Moreover, the league did not institute a penalty for “targeting a player’s head” until five years ago.
This case is unfolding in a very similar way to the NFL lawsuit from a few years ago. Both started small, and, galvanized by player deaths, have grown steadily. We will continue to discuss the matter further–as well as sub-concussive and concussive injuries in sports more broadly–in future articles.