How Will Concussion Cases Against the NFL Change the Game?

Paul WardContributor IIIJanuary 21, 2012

Dave Duerson: January 27, 1991 Super Bowl XXV: Buffalo Bills v New York Giants
Dave Duerson: January 27, 1991 Super Bowl XXV: Buffalo Bills v New York GiantsGeorge Rose/Getty Images

In the latest concussion-related NFL suit against the NFL filed January 17, the charge is once more that the league, and “other defendants,” namely some equipment manufacturers, “intentionally and fraudulently misrepresented and/or concealed medical evidence about the short- and long-term risks regarding repetitive traumatic brain injury and concussions and failed to warn players that they risked permanent brain damage if they returned to play too soon after sustaining a concussion.”

Whatever the league did or didn’t do, you wonder how a player could have played the sport for any time at all and not have known the danger. The medical evidence that concussions from playing football present could adversely affect one’s health has been around for more than 100 years.

It was in 1893 that a doctor told Navy Midshipman Joe Reeves that one more kick in the head and he was done playing football, and the last thing he should be thinking about was playing in the Army-Navy game that year. Joe said to hell with that and found a local leather smith to make up some moleskin that he could wear on his head. It was, by some accounts, the first helmet. 

In 1917, the danger seemed to have been recognized when somebody designed a helmet within a helmet, in effect a suspension system to further protect the head. 

And the danger was so clear in 1939 that helmets were made mandatory at the college level and four years later the NFL followed.  

Until the mid-1980s, you didn’t hear much about the problem of concussions. Helmet technology went from leather to plastic to polycarbonate. Face masks and chin straps were improved. And if people got hurt at one level or another it wasn’t news; a serious injury was rare.  

The irony was it seemed baseball was a lot more dangerous than football. Every year there were always stories about kids who caught a pitch in his temple and died. As opposed to football where if somebody died, particularly in college or in the pros, it was from heat stroke or heart attack. Conditioning seemed more deadly than the hitting. 

And if you’ve ever watched 75 Seasons, the old timers who were interviewed seemed no worse for the wear. Not Arda Bowser at 95. Or Sammy Baugh, who at his late age missed the game so much he could hardly speak. Or, Y.A. Tittle. Or Chuck Bednarik. Or Joe Namath, for that matter. Whatever physical pain they’d suffered years after playing the game didn’t seem to be a big part of how they remembered the experience. Or they didn’t talk about it. Or Steve Sabol didn’t think to ask them. 

But then what’s happened in the last 15 years? 

What’s happened is that there is now a large number of retirees from the professional game; the financial size of the game has increased dramatically; there is a huge discrepancy between what a few players make and what most make; and the league has been slow to change rules that lessen the risk of injuries from concussion. 

There's also much more public awareness of the problem, particularly among parents of players from Pop Warner to high school. Part of that awareness is coming from books like The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic, published in 2011 and written by Linda Carroll and David Rosner.  

One of the revelations they describe is this: "The latest research shows that a single moderate to severe brain injury can result in changes that increase a person’s risk of dementia, while multiple jolts to the head can have the same impact.”   

And then there are the cultural factors at play in the background: recognizing professional malpractice and finding remedy in court is socially acceptable. Critics may insist this is all part of the "culture of entitlement" in America, but what’s wrong with an employer or a manufacturer paying compensation for selling a product known to be harmful. We have no problem with the recall of a car or if the cigarette companies have to pay a penalty for hiding the ill effects of smoking. No problem if the doctor takes off the wrong leg or the cop shoots the wrong person or the priest molests a parishioner. We expect the institution or company to take care of it, even if they won’t take formal responsibility.  

In the back of our minds we may be thinking, "well they can pay for it so why not sue". And that's okay. It’s part of the current notion that everybody should qualify for a bailout, not just banks or car companies too big to fail. 

Meanwhile, a dozen cases against the NFL are starting to drift through the infinite mind of Lady Justice and may for years to come—and may also never go to trial, because of course the NFL has a treasure to ensure they don’t. 

The most recent plaintiffs include former Philadelphia Eagles Rich Miano.
The most recent plaintiffs include former Philadelphia Eagles Rich Miano.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Legal analysts believe it will be difficult to prove that these head injuries happened while players were in the NFL—and not before—and equally difficult to prove a player didn’t suffer the malady known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy from some other unrelated experience. 

Moreover, this "movement" to address the problem is nowhere near a tipping point. There is a total of 120 plaintiffs in these dozen or so cases — out of 1,696 players, based on 32 53-man rosters. Divide 120 by 32 80-man rosters and you get the sense that the tempest fills a teapot. 

It probably doesn’t help that an AP survey taken in December 2011 found that 23 out of 44 NFL players admitted they would hide a possible concussion rather than come out of a game (h/t ESPN)

Interestingly, in the survey, players were also asked whether more could be done to prevent these kinds of injuries: 18 players said "yes,” changes could be made to helmets, chin straps and face guards. But 24 said "no.” Everything is probably about as good as it can be. 

"The bottom line is: you have to be able to put food on the table,” Maurice Jones-Drew has been quoted to say and surely this is a common view. “No one's going to sign or want a guy who can't stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I'm going to have trouble walking. I realize that. But this is what I signed up for. Injuries are part of the game. If you don't want to get hit, then you shouldn't be playing." 

For the likes of Dave Duerson, this is an insane logic and a shallow heroism from someone who perhaps cannot imagine the effects of lost motor skills, the long black holes of depression or even the long black hole at the end of a gun barrel.

The daily difficulty is not being unable to mosey down to the store, but being able to get from the bedroom to the can. Or to remember where the can is.

As for putting food on the table, sure that’s an argument, but if you think metaphorically then you also have to put emotional food on the table, and long after the last whistle. If you are increasingly incapacitated and endlessly depressed, then at what point does the mansion seem like a useless luxury? 

But none of this matters in a society that revels in the violence that you could argue is needed to keep its balance. 

Yet the question remains: whose responsibility is this? And whose responsibility should it be?  

And there is the broader question: Who should decide what the game becomes? The players, the fans, the team owners, the NFL, or some board made up of all the constituents. 

In sum, the "never-take-me-out-of-the-game" culture is changing, awareness is greatly improved, and the NFL is beginning to take more visible steps to address the situation. Hence, big brother in the booth to insure players are carefully examined before returning to the game. 

The consequences of these changes, along with changes in technology, may well mean that the game will become more and more controlled, more scripted in every sense—less and less the way you remember it from school or backyard, less reckless abandon and the "magnificent chaos" — little boys running in their dreams — and more cerebral, more intricate, faster and faster, more and less brutal at the same time. And the players themselves may become different. Perhaps, they’ll come less from the middle class where parents may steer their children to safer sports; they’ll come more from the poorer classes, and immigrant communities, where fortune trumps other considerations.  

Is this all good or bad? It depends more on what you get from watching the game, than from playing it.


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