BY SPNW Staff 07:47AM 05/17/2012

Can Flood Of Suits By Former Players Kill NFL?

More than 75 lawsuits have been filed by former NFL players against the league. These lawsuits have the potential to seriously damage, if not wipe out, America’s No. 1 sport.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated that the NFL's "on field" responsibility is to protect player safety and the integrity of the rule of the game." / Wiki Commons

A few days ago, Art Monk, the Hall of Fame wide receiver who played 14 seasons for the Washington Redskins, filed suit against the National Football League and helmet manufacturer Riddell, Inc., alleging “short term memory loss, headaches and speech difficulties” stemming from multiple concussions he sustained during his career.

Monk is the lead plaintiff in an 82-page lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that the NFL failed to protect players “against long-term brain injury risks associated with football-related concussions.”

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008, Monk is one of 63 plaintiffs in the suit. A couple of days before Monk filed, 198 other players filed suit in the same court making claims similar to Monk’s.

With those cases recorded, here’s the up-to-date tally: More than 2,000 former NFL players have filed 75 separate lawsuits against the NFL and Riddell Inc. None of these suits will reach the courts this week or next month or even next year. But when they do — and if things go badly for the NFL — the financial damage could wipe out the league.

At least that’s the opinion of Gregg Doyel, a national columnist for CBSSports.com, who argues that if each settlement is worth $1 million, the 2,000 players who have filed suit would win $2 billion. If that happens, Doyel argues, the NFL is finished because that would open the floodgates for more suits (the NFL is a $9 billion industry).

“I realize I’m describing the indescribable, but I’m not imagining the unimaginable,” Doyel wrote. “It’s pretty damn easy to see how bad this could be, because while the NFL can afford bad publicity and a tough union and the occasional suicide by a beloved former star, what it can’t afford is the millions — hundreds of millions, easy — it would lose should its former players start winning these lawsuits.

“With more lawsuits filed each week. And there’s a lot more retired players out there, watching these lawsuits. Waiting. With an attorney on speed dial. I promise you that. This is the NFL’s Big Tobacco moment, only worse, because people aren’t literally addicted to football like they’re addicted to smoking — and because the NFL doesn’t generate billions in tax revenues. Financially speaking, this country needs the tobacco industry. We love football, but we don’t need it like we need tobacco.”

When the courts begin hearing these cases, the NFL will argue that neither it nor Riddell should be held responsible for thousands of former players breaking down, mentally or physically, and that even if they are breaking down the players knew the risks of playing professional football and elected to take them.

The players will counter that they didn’t know the risks of memory loss and dementia and that the NFL failed to warn them of the health hazards they faced once their careers came to an end.

Not everyone believes that the NFL is in the kind of jeopardy Doyel describes. But some do. Last week, Baltimore Ravens defensive back Bernard Pollard told SportsRadio 610 in Houston, “In another 20 or 30 years, I don’t even think football will be in existence anymore.”

When research into the effects of sports-related brain trauma began in 1970s, it focused primarily on boxing. It wasn’t until a Pennsylvania doctor named Bennet Omalu analyzed the brain of Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Mike Webster (Pittsburgh Steelers), who died in 2002 of a drug overdose, and discovered the existence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, a relative of dementia) that the NFL’s concussion protocols began receiving serious scrutiny.

However, the NFL largely ignored Omalu’s findings until Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was diagnosed with CTE shortly after his death in 2009. Since then, lawsuits against the NFL have come non-stop, begging this question:


YourThoughts

  • brad

    Football is the only sport, played on a large field with a ball, which allows wholesale substitutions. The result is 300 plus pound players with relatively fresh legs delivering massive blows. If players had to play on both sides of the ball, 300 pound players might make good bowlers, but they certainly wouldn’t play football

    • Artthiel

       Be careful what you wish for, Brad. One-platoon football, with Prussian spikes atop the helmets, may be in your future. 

    • guest

      I’d like to see the injury stats for speed football — where the size of the players is limited to 200 pounds, or something like that. Are there fewer injuries?  Fewer concussions?

      I’d love to see single platoon football because, as Brad says, it would reduce the size of the players and, hopefully, limit injuries and concussions.

  • brad

    Football is the only sport, played on a large field with a ball, which allows wholesale substitutions. The result is 300 plus pound players with relatively fresh legs delivering massive blows. If players had to play on both sides of the ball, 300 pound players might make good bowlers, but they certainly wouldn’t play football

    • Artthiel

       Be careful what you wish for, Brad. One-platoon football, with Prussian spikes atop the helmets, may be in your future. 

    • guest

      I’d like to see the injury stats for speed football — where the size of the players is limited to 200 pounds, or something like that. Are there fewer injuries?  Fewer concussions?

      I’d love to see single platoon football because, as Brad says, it would reduce the size of the players and, hopefully, limit injuries and concussions.

  • Roy

    If the NFL if the suits/settlements become a problem the there they will be able to get legislative relief.  The senators and representatives from states where football is a religious experience would rush to throw the ex-players with memory and depression problems under the bus.  I would guess that there would be “cover”  with some sort of minimum medical coverage similar to the way military vets are handled.

    • Artthiel

       Possible, Roy, but a public trial with a former hero now demented is the last thing the NFL wants to defend. They will go to great lengths to avoid even one such trial. The union knows it, and the players know it.

       Unfortunately for our service people, their anonymity works against justice for them, plus the fact that it’s built into the American psyche to accept the wounds of honorable war as part of the whole cultural belief in armed conflict.

  • Roy

    If the NFL if the suits/settlements become a problem the there they will be able to get legislative relief.  The senators and representatives from states where football is a religious experience would rush to throw the ex-players with memory and depression problems under the bus.  I would guess that there would be “cover”  with some sort of minimum medical coverage similar to the way military vets are handled.

    • Artthiel

       Possible, Roy, but a public trial with a former hero now demented is the last thing the NFL wants to defend. They will go to great lengths to avoid even one such trial. The union knows it, and the players know it.

       Unfortunately for our service people, their anonymity works against justice for them, plus the fact that it’s built into the American psyche to accept the wounds of honorable war as part of the whole cultural belief in armed conflict.

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  • Dave

    I find it difficult to believe that players didn’t have as good an idea of the risks to their bodies and brain function as supposedly the NFL would have. It has been evident for a long time that severe kneeproblems go along with length of time playing and position played. What was the League supposed to do, have players sign a waiver accepting that playing football is a risky sport?

    • Artthiel

       Part of the standard player’s contract severely limits the liability of teams for long-term injuries. Injury settlements are also a fact of NFL life. What is open to litigation is willful negligence on the part of teams and their medical staffs. That will be very hard to prove, but it only takes a few for the NFL to be forced into a mass settlement, which would include changes to the game more significant than we have seen. 

      • jafabian

        I’m wondring if the NFL might start setting limits on careers now.  If you have “X” number of concussions or certain type of injuries they might tell that player that their career is done?  I could see some of those players sueing their way back into the league though.

  • Dave

    I find it difficult to believe that players didn’t have as good an idea of the risks to their bodies and brain function as supposedly the NFL would have. It has been evident for a long time that severe kneeproblems go along with length of time playing and position played. What was the League supposed to do, have players sign a waiver accepting that playing football is a risky sport?

    • Artthiel

       Part of the standard player’s contract severely limits the liability of teams for long-term injuries. Injury settlements are also a fact of NFL life. What is open to litigation is willful negligence on the part of teams and their medical staffs. That will be very hard to prove, but it only takes a few for the NFL to be forced into a mass settlement, which would include changes to the game more significant than we have seen. 

      • jafabian

        I’m wondring if the NFL might start setting limits on careers now.  If you have “X” number of concussions or certain type of injuries they might tell that player that their career is done?  I could see some of those players sueing their way back into the league though.

  • Matt712

    In order for the NFL to assume full liability – that is to say, the affected player(s) wins 100% of claim -  those players would have to somehow prove a willful malfeasance (e.g.: purposeful withholding of information) by the NFL that would have affected them. I don’t think that will be the case. It will prove almost impossible for a player to lay full culpability on the league – too many other factors to consider (such as genetics, lifestyle outside the sport, etc.).

    Football, like any sport, has and will continue to evolve. Part of that evolution is risk awareness and prevention. Every major pro sport I know of has a well documented history of attempts to make their sport safer – through technology, rule changes, or whatever – that cannot be disputed. Sure, there have been many things to subvert this (steroids, bounties, etc.) but nothing anyone can clearly say was perpetrated by the league.

    And should any of these cases win when they finally are heard, the appeals process will likely be considerably lengthy.  I’d like to think there is a more honorable outcome these players are really aiming for than just to alleviate themselves of fault and collect money – Perhaps changing the pension/benefits system to allow for these conditions when they do arise for retired players, perhaps just creating more awareness of this kind of danger.

    • Artthiel

      Matt, you’re generally right that proving the NFL is liable in all these cases is unlikely. But there will be claims presented that some teams and their medical staffs willfully ignored conventional medical advice at the time in order to get the player into action. However naively, the player put his trust in his employer to have his welfare in mind. It will be up to a jury to decide merits, but you know as well as I do who the sympathetic figures will be. The mere fact that the NFL fired its own chief medical officers in the face of the evidence, and then began changing rules in midseason, will be portrayed as an acknowledgment that it previously had been negligent, The league’s lawyers will argue otherwise, but the NFL genuinely fears the outcome.

      I’d like to think there that honor will play a factor. Unfortunately, I know better.

      • RadioGuy

        There is no honor among profits.

  • Matt712

    In order for the NFL to assume full liability – that is to say, the affected player(s) wins 100% of claim -  those players would have to somehow prove a willful malfeasance (e.g.: purposeful withholding of information) by the NFL that would have affected them. I don’t think that will be the case. It will prove almost impossible for a player to lay full culpability on the league – too many other factors to consider (such as genetics, lifestyle outside the sport, etc.).

    Football, like any sport, has and will continue to evolve. Part of that evolution is risk awareness and prevention. Every major pro sport I know of has a well documented history of attempts to make their sport safer – through technology, rule changes, or whatever – that cannot be disputed. Sure, there have been many things to subvert this (steroids, bounties, etc.) but nothing anyone can clearly say was perpetrated by the league.

    And should any of these cases win when they finally are heard, the appeals process will likely be considerably lengthy.  I’d like to think there is a more honorable outcome these players are really aiming for than just to alleviate themselves of fault and collect money – Perhaps changing the pension/benefits system to allow for these conditions when they do arise for retired players, perhaps just creating more awareness of this kind of danger.

    • Artthiel

      Matt, you’re generally right that proving the NFL is liable in all these cases is unlikely. But there will be claims presented that some teams and their medical staffs willfully ignored conventional medical advice at the time in order to get the player into action. However naively, the player put his trust in his employer to have his welfare in mind. It will be up to a jury to decide merits, but you know as well as I do who the sympathetic figures will be. The mere fact that the NFL fired its own chief medical officers in the face of the evidence, and then began changing rules in midseason, will be portrayed as an acknowledgment that it previously had been negligent, The league’s lawyers will argue otherwise, but the NFL genuinely fears the outcome.

      I’d like to think there that honor will play a factor. Unfortunately, I know better.

      • RadioGuy

        There is no honor among profits.

  • Joe Fan

    I think I’m going to sue the beer companies!  My short term memory is shot.

    • RadioGuy

      “Short term” what?

      • jafabian

        What are we talking about?

  • Joe Fan

    I think I’m going to sue the beer companies!  My short term memory is shot.

    • RadioGuy

      “Short term” what?

      • jafabian

        What are we talking about?

  • Soggyblogger

    I believe a class action settlement will occur, and that will take care of these suits against the NFL. Even a one billion dollar settlement would not destroy the league. One way or another the NFL could afford to pay that, but what might threaten the sport’s future is the elimination of HS football, and college football. Both of those institutions also face potential liability. 

    Right now, parents are legally liable if they smoke around their children. Is it inconceivable that parents will face criminal sanctions for even allowing their children to play football? I think that is what will ultimately threaten the existence of the sport. 

  • Soggyblogger

    I believe a class action settlement will occur, and that will take care of these suits against the NFL. Even a one billion dollar settlement would not destroy the league. One way or another the NFL could afford to pay that, but what might threaten the sport’s future is the elimination of HS football, and college football. Both of those institutions also face potential liability. 

    Right now, parents are legally liable if they smoke around their children. Is it inconceivable that parents will face criminal sanctions for even allowing their children to play football? I think that is what will ultimately threaten the existence of the sport. 

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  • cool37

    All of these lawsuits aimed at the NFL, but how will these players be able to prove that their Pop Warner league, High Schools, or colleges aren’t to blame for their current situation? Not to say that they are, but there just seems to be too many factors involved for any real blame to be laid entirely on the NFL.

  • cool37

    All of these lawsuits aimed at the NFL, but how will these players be able to prove that their Pop Warner league, High Schools, or colleges aren’t to blame for their current situation? Not to say that they are, but there just seems to be too many factors involved for any real blame to be laid entirely on the NFL.

  • Pixeldawg13

    I’m sorry, Art–now you’re sounding like that woman at the Times who wrote the idiotic, ill-informed, and badly done editorial about the UW’s policy.

    I notice also that you don’t mention the Pac-12 coach for whom the word ‘injury’ doesn’t seem to exist. But then, for him, neither does the concept ‘players misbehave and should be disciplined for it.’ After all, it’s perfectly normal to drive 140+ on the freeways in a “borrowed” rental car while smoking it all, right? Just boys being boys. Or so Chip would have it.

    If none of the UW’s next three opponents (Stanford, Oregon, USC) report or talk about injuries, what’s your problem with UW taking the same stance? You give the impression of a little boy who had his favorite toy taken away.

    And I’m sorry, but “Truth be told — not that the Huskies would go that far –” is in the slanderous area, and I’ve always thought you were above such tactics. I wonder what Royal would think. Remember Royal? My late mother certainly did, after all the years she worked at the P-I. Shame on you.

    • Michael Kaiser

      “You give the impression of a little boy who had his favorite toy taken away.” Have to admit, that is a somewhat interesting statement coming from someone clearly so wrapped up in the COLLEGE (essentially children’s) version of a child’s game.

  • Artthiel

    Asking college football for perspective is like offering a salad to Jabba the Hutt.