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


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


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


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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot