NFL escapes “judicial nets” with concussion deal

“There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through.”

-Eugene V. Debs

The most recent “whale” to escape meaningful legal accountability was the National Football League (NFL) who settled over 4,000 lawsuits from former players and families. The plaintiffs alleged that the NFL either ignored or did not inform players of long term medical risks stemming from concussion spectrum injuries suffered by playing football. To settle these suits, the league has agreed to pay $765 million.

While this may seem like a victory for the affected players and their families, the devil is truly in the details. The amount of money may seem staggering at first glance, but context is important. The NFL is a $9 billion a year industry and the settlement payout is over the next 20 years. Assuming no revenue growth (a laughable assertion), the league will produce $180 billion over the same duration; it must pay out a comparative pittance to settle the claims against them.

The league also continues to deny that football played a contributing factor in the long-term brain trauma suffered by the players. The NFL stated that the settlement “cannot be considered an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football.” This is not too surprising, as the league has denied the connection between football and concussion spectrum injuries/brain trauma for many years even as research proved otherwise.

The settlement has the added benefit of keeping possible uncomfortable facts from being unearthed during discovery phase and a subsequent trial. Yet, what has been disclosed is incredibly unsettling.

Dr. Elliot Pellman was the head of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee from the 1990s to the early 2000s. This is especially notable because Pellman specialized as a rheumatologist and had no specific expertise in brain research. Pellman’s reign as chair of the committee was rife with denial of football being connected to brain trauma. When the NFL dumped results of players from a study on brain trauma, the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory noted, “The data that hasn’t shown up makes their work questionable industry-funded research.” While other independent studies linked concussions to problems like depression and cognitive damage, the NFL’s committee issued “research” declaring that there were no long term adverse health effects of concussions. Pellman was the lead author on nine of 16 studies that posited there was no risk from concussions nor were there many concussions caused from football.

While the NFL’s retirement board quietly paid out disability benefits to the family on players like former Pittsburgh Steelers C Mike Webster due to brain damaged suffered from playing in the league, Pellman and other committee members attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to prevent committee approval of research arguing that fact.

During his tenure as co-chair of the committee, Pellman was also the team doctor for the New York Jets. Multiple players have stated the team joked about the lack of seriousness given to concussion injuries by Pellman and that Pellman set a wide receiver back into a game after he had been knocked out on the field.

Dr. Ira Casson, the other co-chair of the Mild Brain Trauma Injury Committee, was another rheumatologist assigned to this neurologically focused group by the league and has long denied a relationship between football, concussions and long term trauma. In 2007, he told HBO’s Real Sports, “There is no connection between concussion spectrum injuries and any long term health problems.” He continued to be the head of the committee until he resigned after embarrassing himself in front of Congress by arguing this exact, long-discredited point.

As more information about the danger of concussion spectrum injuries comes to light and as the league begins to do more to provide basic protections for players’ long-term brain safety, the long history of the NFL’s refusal to acknowledge facts publicly in order to protect its brand must be faced. Even as a new PBS documentary and book on the subject is set to go into excruciating detail on this subject, reports have surfaced that the NFL pressured ESPN to drop out of the documentary.

The players are definitely going to be on my mind this week as the season begins. While I wonder if Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler will lead the Bears to success and which players I should start for the week in my Fantasy Football League, I’ll also be thinking about the Mike Websters, the Dave Duersons, the Junior Seaus, the Andre Waters, the Justin Strzelczyks, the Ray Easterlings, the Tom McHales and how we can protect players to prevent any further tragedies.

Photo: Bears Quarterback Jay Cutler warms up before a 2009 game (Wikipedia/Mike Shadle/CC)



Neil Parthun
Neil Parthun

Neil Parthun is an activist and a sports fan. He attempts to bring these two worlds together with his weekly radio show/podcast/TV show "Not Another Sports Show" and with his writing. His goal is to help build a space that shows people can care about both social justice and sports.