How the Impending Concussion Lawsuits Will Drastically Change the NFL's Future

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How the Impending Concussion Lawsuits Will Drastically Change the NFL's Future
Brian A. Westerholt/Getty Images

It's the last week of November—the last week of the NFL season. Two teams of seven men each stand on a synthetic surface. They're wearing flags on their hips. They're surrounded by 37,487 cheering fans in a stadium built to hold 65,000.

The quarterback, ball in hand, lines up several yards behind the line of scrimmage. He surveys the field, barks a short cadence and the play begins.

Is this the future of the NFL?

 

The Master Lawsuit

The NFL is being sued by thousands of former players. They, by themselves and in small groups, claim the NFL knew about the high brain-injury risk that comes with playing football and covered it up for years.

On June 7th, a "master complaint" was filed on their behalf, uniting their complaints into one case. Per Andrew Brandt of ESPN.com, the NFL will likely try to get the case dismissed but has retained Robert C. Heim of the law firm Dechert LLP—possibly to prepare behind the scenes for a trial.

The NFL will argue these players' injuries are legally handled by the collective bargaining agreement, that they have no standing to sue the NFL now for past injuries. But if the court rules the players have a case, the NFL has a problem.

A trial would be extremely bad news for the NFL. It would mean weeks, if not months, of the worst possible publicity. Unlike the lockout, it would pull people's attention away from the product on the field.

Worse yet, there'd be a "discovery phase," when each side can request reams of evidence related to the case. Everything about the NFL's handling of concussions over the past two decades would be made public.

During the lockout, the players' "Brady v. NFL" antitrust suit kept the owners honest. As scary as the prospect of no game checks was for players, the idea that complete financial records for the NFL and every team would become public was equally terrifying to the league. Both sides had a vested interest in settling that lawsuit.

But the settling of that suit, and the resultant CBA, didn't do enough to address these injured players. They have the chance to extract millions—or possibly billions—from the NFL.

 

The Impact

But the NFL has plenty of billions; they bring in nine or 10 of them every year these days. A massive lawsuit payout would tear a hole in the balance sheets, but with the way the NFL rakes in cash it could tape over it pretty quickly.

The real impact of a judgment against the NFL (or massive settlement) would be in the changes the NFL has to make to mitigate the risk of concussions and the debilitating long-term impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The image most people have of dangerous football concussions are the dramatic, heart-stopping hits that leave players twitching, staggering or knocked completely out cold. But studies are showing that the real threat may be sub-concussive forces, or impacts repeated over and over.

J. Paul Zoccali, at his blog Communication by Symbol, took a sampling of the list of plaintiffs in the master lawsuit, using all those whose last names started with "A." Eleven were linebackers, 10 defensive backs, 10 tailbacks, eight defensive linemen and six offensive linemen. There were only 10 of every other position put together.

When you consider that there are between three and five LBs, DBs, DLs and OLs each on the field at all times, but only one true RB, these results are startling. Based on Zoccali's small sample size, the long-term effects of concussions are felt by running backs almost three times as often as the linebackers hitting them, and four times as often as defensive backs.

This fits the data: A running back might "see stars" five to 10 times times a game, every game. Those sub-concussive hits—brain impacts that don't cause a concussion—end up doing much more long-term damage than a single unfortunate hit. 

 

The Fallout

The NFL has already taken the first steps: Baseline testing, sideline staff and on-field testing in response to visible or reported symptoms are crucial to accurate diagnoses. They also formed the Head, Neck and Spine Committee to set standards for treatment, safety and guidelines on when concussed players may safely resume work.

But the NFL is already erratically trying to outlaw what it perceives are dangerous hits. It's throwing around suspensions and heavy fines for the kind of hits that make fans' stomachs churn with excitement (to avoid the stomach-churning times a player is knocked out cold).

The data suggests this won't do it. Again, it's not the spectacular, terrifying impacts that are causing athletes to lose their grip on life at very young ages. It's the fundamental nature of the game: thousands of mild impacts to the brain over weeks, months or years. It's a result of defensive lines crashing into offensive lines, of linebackers into running backs.

The only way to eliminate those impacts is to remove them.

If football became a 7-on-7 game—which, to an extent, it is for elite high school players—it might eliminate the root cause of the long-term brain trauma these thousands of players now suffer from. It might also eliminate the NFL's popularity.

The running game is already on its way out in the NFL, eclipsed by the superior potential of the forward pass and the game-breaking potential of modern athletes in space. But that every-down trench war is integral to the fabric of the game. At its root, the battle to push the line of scrimmage forward is what football is.

To remove line play from the game would make it a less dynamic, less exciting, less fun-to-watch game. It would make it, even more, a chess match played by coaches and the quarterbacks who act as their surrogates on the field. It would unquestionably knock football off its perch at the top of American sport.

But it might save it from being banned altogether—or relegated to a freak show while the most talented athletes save their bodies, and minds, for less inherently brutal sports.

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