Do retired NFL players have the right to sue for head injuries?
By A.J. Wagner
My parents had next to nothing. They had each other, they had their 18 children, and they had a three-bedroom house in the poor section of Beaver Falls, Penn., just north of Pittsburgh. After my mother died and her income was lost, my dad sold the house and moved into a mobile home. By that time he had obtained one other prized possession.
A year or so after Mom died, my dad asked me to write his will. Not being licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania I resisted. At my dad’s insistence, however, I finally relented and said, “OK, what do you want to happen to your things?”
He started with that prized possession, “I want my season tickets to the Pittsburgh Steelers to go to my sons.”
I explained, briefly, the ins and outs of seat licensing and the possible barriers the Steelers may have to prevent their tickets from passing to others. I also explained how his daughters would dig him up from his grave to spit on him if only the sons were included in the bequest. He said, “OK. Just put it in there and make sure the tickets don’t go to the in-laws. They’re for my kids.”
I agreed to write it into a will with no guarantee that his wish would be honored by the Steelers. Then I asked him what else he would like to see in his will. He said, “Oh, I don’t care about the rest. Just make sure about the tickets.”
To most folks from the ‘Burgh, there is nothing more important than the Steelers. So when I was Montgomery County Auditor and I heard that Dwight White, a member of the famous Steel Curtain defensive line of the 1970s and now a municipal bond dealer, wanted to visit with me to discuss municipal financing, I was thrilled. We talked football as much as anything else but he asked if he could meet our county treasurer. We took the steps. Dwight could barely navigate them. “Don’t mind me,” he requested. “Most of us retired players have physical problems from years of taking hits.”
So as playoff battles continue on the field, some of those retired players, about 120 of them, are now going to do battle with the National Football League (NFL) in court. The specific focus of their litigation is concussions. The players are asking the NFL and helmet manufacturers to compensate them for their lifelong head injuries which are causing ongoing headaches, memory loss, dementia, disorientation and more.
It is the retired players’ contention that the NFL did not inform them of all that the NFL knew about multiple head injuries. The players believe that the NFL and the helmet manufacturers were aware of research showing the debilitating effects of multiple concussions but that such information was either not shared with players or completely downplayed in a way that caused players to disregard the dangers.
A 2007 pamphlet the league distributed to players stated, “Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is treated properly.” The players claim that this was not the state of “current” research. Doctors are prepared to testify that the NFL statement came from faulty research. It wasn’t until last year, the retired players contend, that the league began taking concussions seriously.
The NFL is gearing up for a vigorous defense. Their lawyers hope to have all the cases treated under collective bargaining agreements rather than through the courts. Barring that, the NFL hopes to see all the cases moved to one federal court in Philadelphia. Then it is their intention to ask that the cases be dismissed.
The league is taking the lawsuit seriously but sees the cases as frivolous. They have many points on their side starting with the known dangers of playing such a violent sport. Not only is the sport violent, but players, by choice, continue to play after they’ve been injured. One cannot complain that they were injured when they have taken on known risks.
The league will ask the players to prove that their injuries were a direct result of playing in the NFL. This will be hard to do since most, if not all, the players suffered injuries in high school or college.
Many players would have faced dementia and other neurological disorders regardless of the sport. How does one prove that it was football that caused this specific dementia?
If I were to handicap this suit, I’d pick the NFL by a touchdown or more. Nonetheless, if the retired players succeed, look for Dwight White to come off the bench and ask, “Now, about my knees?”
Disclaimer: The content herein is for entertainment and information only. Do not use this as a legal consultation. Every situation has different nuances that can affect the outcome and laws change without notice. If you’re in a situation that calls for legal advice, get a lawyer. You represent yourself at your own risk. The author, the Dayton City Paper and its affiliates shall have no liability stemming from your use of the information contained herein.
A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com.