The Ugly Truth Behind The NFL Concussion Battle

ALLGBP.com All Green Bay Packers All the Time
Dr. Elliot Pellman
Dr. Elliot Pellman's research is at the center of the NFL Concussion legal battle.

As I sat down at my computer this week with some desperately needed free time on my hands, I was all set to begin an article depicting the NFL as a gigantic scapegoat in the recent concussion lawsuits being filed against them. It just didn’t make sense to me. These players knowingly and willingly participated in a contact sport where injuries occurred on a regular basis. Not only that, they reveled in delivering big hits on their opponents.

Should they not bear the responsibility of their actions? After all, if a knee injury could leave a lasting effect on your life, it would only make sense that repeated trauma to the head (and brain) could do the same thing. It would be like a boxer suing someone else for injuries they sustained in the ring. They made their choice.

Then I started do my research. I knew I didn’t have the whole story, and my better judgment told me I should at least understand exactly what the former players were charging the NFL with.

Let me tell you first that it wasn’t easy to find the information I was looking for, and I still haven’t exhausted all my searches. If you ask me, part of my own previous ignorance about the situation stems from a lack of details presented by the major media outlets. I sifted through dozens of articles naming the players involved in filing these lawsuits, but few if any of them actually explained the claims against the NFL. The only thing I knew was that it had something to do with concussions.

And then I started to find some trails of gold.

The first big nugget I stumbled across was the blog site NFL Concussion Litigation. It’s publisher, Paul D. Anderson, is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, where he focused on Sports Law, Class Actions, Labor & Employment Law, and Business Litigation. His purpose, according to the site, is to provide “up-to-date coverage and legal analysis of the lawsuits filed by former NFL players against the NFL regarding its alleged concealment of the risks associated with concussions.”

A lot of the content can get very technical, though there are some posts that just about anyone would understand. One of the aforementioned articles is “Op-Ed: The NFL Concussion Crisis & The Doctor-Patient Relationship,” which takes a look at how team doctors actually operate within a franchise. While I won’t get into the details here, I highly recommend reading the article, since the sideline physician is a key element in the debate.

After taking some time to browse through the blog, I finally found what I had been looking for. “Will the NFL Concussion Lawsuits Be a Game Changer?” is a post that takes the case back to the beginning of this whole debacle: 1994 and the creation of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBIC).

The NFL, after a wave of head injuries to star players like Troy Aikman and Steve Young, created the MTBIC to study the effects of concussions and to implement rules and guidelines to protect players from concussions. Then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed Dr. Elliot Pellman to lead the committee, while Drs. Ira Casson and David Viano also became prominent figures among the group.

The neurological community, meanwhile, was conducting similar studies, and they widely disagreed with the results of Dr. Pellman’s research.

Pellman at one point wrote that “many NFL players can be safely allowed to return to play on the day of injury” and that “the current decisionmaking of NFL team physicians seems appropriate for return to the game after a concussion.”

The Second International Conference on Concussion in Sport, which met in Prague in 2004, came to a different conclusion: “When a player shows ANY symptoms or signs of a concussion … the player should not be allowed to return to play in the current game or practice … When in doubt, sit them out!”

Beginning in 2003, Pellman and his committee members published a long-running series on concussions in the scholarly journal Neurosurgery. Their sixth paper released by the journal in 2004 concluded that NFL players did not show a decline in brain function after suffering concussions and players with three or more concussions endured no ill effects. The printed reviews from peer scientists that followed were extremely harsh and considered the studies to be “flawed beyond belief.”

There was also this 2007 interview of Dr. Ira Casson on HBO’s “Real Time Sports.”

If you want to learn more about the history of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and their dubious research methods, I HIGHLY recommend reading “Doctor Yes.” Written by Peter Keating, the story was printed in ESPN The Magazine in 2006. It is a rather lengthy piece, but every paragraph is worth the time to read it. Your mind will be blown away at some of the allegations against Dr. Pellman and his fellow committee members.

As for how things have progressed since, Commissioner Roger Goodell deserves a lot of credit for trying to turn around this culture of denial in the NFL when it comes to concussions. In 2007, he began to retool their approach to concussion research and mandated baseline neuropsychological testing for all players.

It might be a “cover your ass” approach to the situation, but one can only imagine how much stronger the former players’ lawsuits would become without these steps to remedy things.

Goodell can be called a lot of things, but indifferent to player safety is not one of them.

In a sense, the “cover up” has become worse than the crime itself. Roger Goodell should be quite familiar with this type of indictment considering how he has delivered punishment in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. Recently signed Packers lineman Tony Hargrove received an 8-game suspension not only for his involvement in the bounties, but also for previously lying to investigators.

Had the NFL not repeatedly and emphatically denied the link between concussions and chronic brain disease, we would probably not be seeing even half of these charges being brought against them. Unfortunately for the NFL, Dr. Pellman and the others involved in the MTBIC cannot be target specifically in the lawsuits since they were acting under the supervision and employment of the league. (Though if judgment is rendered against the NFL, they could seek indemnification from the doctors.)

Now, do I believe the players bear no responsibility for what they do on the field? No. Since Roger Goodell’s movement to make the game safer for players, I don’t think he or the NFL can be held accountable for not doing enough to protect and inform the players. It’s the decade or so before his time that is the real crux of the issue.

Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in educating you as much as I’ve educated myself in this matter. It’s not nearly as clean of a case as I once thought, and the NFL has some serious sludge on its hands that it hasn’t been able to clean off.

I couldn’t tell you how I think this will go, since more information is being presented each day. And as with most legal battles, it will come down to technicalities and jargon that I have little experience with. Being more educated, though, has helped me see the situation in a truer light and more ready to process whatever else does come along.

Because this debate is far from over, and it’s only going to get uglier.

(So far, the list of former Green Bay Packers players to file lawsuits against the NFL numbers 8 total: Leroy Butler, Mark Chmura, Santana Dotson, MacArthur Lane, Tootie Robbins, Dorsey Levins, Tiger Greene, and Don Majkowski. The total number of players that have filed concussion-related lawsuits is nearing 1,800.)

——————

Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

——————

  • Jeff

    If you divide the total number of players filing lawsuits by the number of NFL teams the average number of players per team that have filed a claim is 56. So it seems to me the number of former Packer players filing lawsuits is low with only eight. I wonder which team has the highest number of former players filing lawsuits.

    • Chad Toporski

      Very interesting question. I’ll see if I can find the time to look into it.

  • PackersRS
  • Mojo

    You can debate whether the formation of the MTBIC was just a “cover your ass” exercise by the NFL or a legitimate altruistic exercise at trying to discover the effects of concussions on players. However, the basic premise of the argument still remains; are players responsible for the injuries they suffer when they, as Chad put it, “knowingly and willingly participated in a contact sport where injuries occurred on a regular basis.”

    The NFL should take all steps to make the game as safe as possible. But just like someone who races motorcycles, or smokes cigarettes or who takes a job as a cop realizes their are inherent dangers in what they do. Whether someone played last year or 75 years ago, they knew they were putting their bodies at risk and still took those risks anyway. IMO, most of the litigants are in it for a money grab.

    Also, today’s players have to be aware of the new info on concussions(you can’t tell me, for example, a smart guy like ARod, who we know has suffered at least 2 recent concussions doesn’t recognize the danger). Armed with all this evidence, why aren’t players retiring en masse? The answer is – players are and always have been willing to assume the risk of playing at times a brutal game, for their own personal reasons.

    The NFL is responsible to create an environment that is as safe as possible. If someone chooses to participate in that environment, then it’s up to them.

    • Chad Toporski

      That’s the thing. Players will play despite the dangers that are presented to them. The problem was that the NFL was basically denying the dangers of playing with concussions and their long term effects. Had they come right out and said, like the rest of the neurological community, that concussions are a threat to the health of players, then the lawsuits wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Because the players would have been informed of the risk yet still made the willful decision to keep playing.

      • Teamsnelson

        If a team doctor tells a player he is clear to play, does a player really have good option to sit him self out without putting his career at risk?

  • Ron LC

    The players union stance in defending the “Bounty” boys seems to contradict the foundation of the players law suit. The defendant (NFL) willl use this to argue against the players. The union better figure out a strategy that doesn’t claim excess in penalties at the same time former players are looking for a payoff due to NFL negligence.

    • Chad Toporski

      One gigantic mess of a legal battle, if you ask me.

    • Normthe1

      probably the ‘Comment of the Week’ for me, thanks Ron.

    • Teamsnelson

      I think the Players Association protecting players from being severely reprimanded without clear evidence being presented. I am for punishment for a bounty, but it should be done in a transparent way that is in line. For example why is Hargrove given an 8 week suspension for participating in the coach run bounty, when Big Ben was only given a four week suspension. How are these punishments being weighed? What evidence of the bounty system is there against the accused players? What if even one of the players was wrongly identified as being involved?

  • lisa greenwood

    My opinion on the concussion debate is the NFL has to be accountable for letting the players back into a game after an injury. There needs to be rules in place for this. If someone breaks their arm or leg are they going back in to play. No they are not, so why if they crash teir head and cannot see straight are they allowed to play? Nost players will play no matter what. My favorite player Rob Gronkowski flipped over and looked like he twisted his neck last season and after he said he would lie about a concussion so he could continue playing. While I love Rob, saying that was not the smartest thing. You can die from this and it should not be taken lightly. More rules are needed to avoid further injury.

  • Steve Cheez

    I remember a story from the Lombardi years. A player came to the sideline. Lombardi yelled “What the hell are you doing?”
    The player responded “Coach, I think I broke my leg.”
    Lombardi shot back “Well get back in there until you’re sure!”

    I can’t verify the veracity of the story, but it is certainly something that isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

  • Teamsnelson

    Thank you for this great article. Well researched and written. I am glad I understand this better now.

  • homerunsimpson

    concussions are bad but dont make the game soft

  • marpag

    Thanks for the article. I looked into this stuff too some time back and found the same information you did. At the time, I remember thinking something that I still think today:

    “This is going to be just like the case against the big tobacco firms.”

    Remember all of those tobacco execs lined up with their hands in the air, swearing one after the other, “No sir, I do not believe that tobacco is addictive”? Those tobacco execs said that even though it made them look like complete fools, because they understood the real thrust of the case against them. They had to prove that they were not purposefully and intentionally withholding better information in order to field a “better” product that would make more money.

    The thrust of this case is the same. The NFL will need to convince the judge that they did not intentionally and purposefully withhold their better knowledge about concussions in an effort to keep players on the field and make more money.

    Bank on this… not too long from now we are going to see Roger and his crew lined up in court with their hands in the air swearing, “No sir, I do not believe that repeated concussions pose a heightened risk of lasting brain damage.”

    But the result will be the same. In the end, the judge will not believe them. He will rule that even if they truly didn’t know, their investigation and research on the matter was so poor and laughable that they are still liable anyway. The NFL will pay out an enormous amount of money, the vast majority of which will go to lawyers. This settlement will be funded by increased prices on cigaret… I mean, NFL tickets. Then the NFL will tweak their product a little bit, slap a metaphorical warning label on the game, and everyone will keep on smokin… I mean, playing … anyway.

    • Ruppert

      This is an awesome comment.

  • ccgirl

    hhmmm, seems like this has been on the radar for a REALLY long time. Scary for the pro players, but what about kids?

    http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=2314899