Billion-dollar collision: NFL goes head-to-head with injured stars

A judge's ruling in Philadelphia could decide the future of the game - and the stakes are huge

The National Football League, flagship of America’s most popular spectator sport, is awaiting a federal judge’s ruling that could clear the way for a multibillion-dollar legal action from its players that stems from the very on-field violence that is one of the league’s biggest attractions.

At the centre of the action is a group of lawsuits brought by more than 4,000 former players who are suing the NFL for not only neglecting, but knowingly concealing from them, the long-term consequences of the concussions and head injuries endemic in the game.

On Tuesday in Philadelphia the case was argued for the first time in court, over a demand by the NFL that the lawsuits should be thrown out. Lawyers for the league not only denied the accusations of wilful negligence, but claimed that the issue was basically a labour dispute, best resolved under the collective bargaining agreement between NFL owners and player’s unions that govern the sport.

The players’ attorneys however urged Judge Anita Brody to dismiss the NFL motion, claiming the league had “glorified” and “monetised” violence without regard for its consequences. “The league knew or should have known that these repeated blows to the head caused significant neurological injury,” David Frederick, the players’ lead lawyer said.

 All eyes are now on Ms Brody, who did not tip her hand as she briskly conducted the hour of oral arguments. “I’ll rule when I sort this out for myself,” she said as she wrapped up proceedings. That could take days, weeks, or even months, with a virtual certainty of an appeal, whatever her decision.

She has a broad range of options, from throwing out all the lawsuits as the league wants, or allowing all of them to go forward – or just some of them. At stake is not a single class action filing, in which any award would be split equally between every plaintiff, but 222 separate lawsuits that were  consolidated for the purposes of the Philadelphia hearing.

One thing however is sure. The stakes are huge, not just financially but, many observers believe, for the long-term future of the league. If America has a national pastime it is no longer baseball but football. The NFL’s annual revenues, underpinned by lucrative  television rights, now exceed $9bn (£5.9bn), making it – it claims – the richest sports league on earth.

In the past few years, however, a shadow has fallen over the progress of this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut: concussion-related brain injuries, above all chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that has turned the lives of many former players into a misery of dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.

NFL fans love the bone-crushing hits, but the long-term costs are ever more apparent, underscored by the 2012 suicides of two former star players, Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, both of whom were subsequently diagnosed with CTE. Mr Easterling, a long-time defensive back with the Atlanta Falcons, led the first major player lawsuit, filed in 2011.

Since then, indeed even before, the NFL introduced new rules designed to make the game safer. But controversy has if anything grown, driven by revelations such as the “bounty” system of extra rewards for injuring star players on the opposition.

Critics demand further measures to protect players – but these could strike at the very heart of the sport’s appeal. Some even speculate that football could be undone by its inherent violence, and ultimately go the way of professional boxing. Today, the so-called “noble art” is a sporting sideshow, but barely half a century ago boxing was the second most popular US sport after baseball.

Case studies

Ralph Wenzel

1943-2012

NFL seasons 7 (Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers)

“Who’s the #62?” Eleanor Perfetto would ask her husband as he withered before her, pointing to a picture of him in his prime. He had no idea. Ralph Wenzel was a star offensive guard in the late-1960s and early 1970s, his job to prevent the opposing defence hurting his quarterback. In the end it was he who suffered. In 1995 he suffered spells of forgetfulness and confusion, but by the time he died at a retirement home in Maryland his Alzheimer’s was so bad he was unrecognisable to his wife, and she to him. “He was in a position where he was being hit pretty routinely,” she told the New York Times two years before his death. “Given what I’ve learned since then, it made sense there was long-term damage caused by his football career.” Eleanor would be among the first to sue the NFL, taking advantage of the laws in California to file for compensation. “He lost his sense of humour, he lost his personality and his sense of dignity. He lost it all,” she would tell a Congressional committee in 2009.

Dave Duerson

1960-2011

NFL seasons 11 (Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Phoenix Cardinals)

Dave Duerson had everything. Two Super Bowl rings, the NFL’s Man of the Year award for 1987, and after retiring as a player a food business that made him very, very rich. In 2001 he sold up and started again, only this time experiencing failure for the first time in his life when his new venture collapsed with chronic debts that left him bankrupt. Duerson was a fearsome safety, arguably the most brutal position on the field whose goal it was to stop opponents dead and dislodge the football, invariably through high-speed, head-to-head collisions. In the run-up to his death he complained of headaches and blurred vision, and short-term memory loss so acute that he often had to write down the names of his closest friends lest he embarrass himself when he was with them. On 17 February 2011 he climbed in to bed, pulled up the covers and shot himself in the chest. His suicide note described how his mood swings and altered personality had driven away his family and cost him his fortune. A text message he sent immediately before he pulled the trigger urged that his brain be donated to research into CTE. The bullet to the chest ensured it remained intact.

Junior Seau

1969-2012

NFL seasons 20 (San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots)

Few players survive in the NFL for as long as the linebacker from American Samoa, and if they do they are usually kickers, not enforcers. A fierce competitor whose dedication to his craft meant he was still playing aged 40, he set such high standards that the league named him in its team of the decade for the 1990s. But towards the end of his life he began to exhibit the classic signs of brain injury; violent moods, irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia, depression. His wife Gina told the Associated Press after he committed suicide, like Duerson shooting himself in the chest: “We saw things that didn’t add up with him, but CTE was not something we were aware of.” He did not leave a note, just the scribbled lyrics of his favourite country song, Who I Ain’t, about a man who regrets what he has become. Once again his brain was sent for analysis, once again it came back showing he had CTE. On 23 January this year his family launched a lawsuit against the NFL.

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