Diane Dimond: Brain disease, football and NFL’s culpability
It was the admission that made every parent of every kid who wants to play football gasp.
The question from Rep. Jan Schakowsky was simple: “Do you think there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE?”
Jeff Miller, the National Football League’s senior vice president for health and safety, assured that “the answer to that question is certainly yes.”
Wow. Now, it doesn’t take a modern Einstein to know that repeated solid blows to a person’s head will cause problems. (Think of the punch-drunk syndrome that was originally discovered in boxers in the 1920s, officially called dementia pugilistica.) But Miller’s comment marked the first time (SET ITAL) ever (END ITAL) that the NFL acknowledged a link between football injuries and brain disease. For decades, the league repressed information about what long-term physical damage concussions and brain-jostling head hits might do to their players.
The scientific evidence and legal backlash against the NFL’s decades of denial is now coming so fast and furious that it’s hard to keep track of it all.
The New York Times reported in February that more than 100 former players, including at least seven hall of famers, have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is now seen as the signature football brain disease, and so far can only be discovered after death. Families of dozens of CTE-afflicted players have revealed agonizing details of the players’ last days — days filled with depression, confusion, frightening mood swings, anger and even suicide.
Late last month, The New York Times also reported that the NFL’s research of concussions from 1996-2001 was flawed: At least 100 diagnosed concussions were omitted from the studies. By the way, these studies concluded that there was no solid scientific proof that brain injuries sustained by repeated blows to the head result in long-term harm to players. Elliot Pellman, the NFL’s top medical advisor, wrote that “many NFL
players can be safely allowed to return to play on the day of injury.”
Obviously, we now know that finding was untrue.
It all reminds me of Big Tobacco’s repeated denials about the health risks of cigarettes. They spent years pointing to the lack of definitive science linking the two. We all know how that turned out.
To be fair, scientific research on what causes CTE and other brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Alzheimer’s in athletes is still in its infancy. But many doctors at prominent research hospitals are quick to say that anyone playing a sport that jostles the head — like football, hockey, rugby or soccer — runs a risk.
All these latest revelations add to the popular opinion that the NFL is an organization that cares more about its multibillion-dollar bottom line than the health of its players. So, is the NFL legally culpable for enticing its players with multi-million dollar contracts at the expense of their health?
You bet it is. More than 5,000 former players filed suits against the league for hiding the potential dangers of concussions. In April 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody approved a settlement that is estimated to cost the NFL $900 million or more. The final deal granted up to $4 million of compensation to the families of players who died with CTE. But get this: The compensation will only be given if the player perished between 2006 and July 7, 2014, when Judge Brody granted preliminary approval of the deal.
The family of legendary Frank Gifford, whose autopsy showed he suffered from an advanced case of CTE, will get nothing because he died in August 2015. The same goes for football great Ken Stabler, who died of colon cancer in July 2015 and was found to have CTE postmortem.
Needless to say, the settlement has been appealed in federal court. And new lawsuits against the league are being filed by players for a variety of claims faster than one can keep track. Surely the multibillion-dollar enterprise can swat away all legal challenges. They’ll point to the few rule changes they’ve made in the game (like eliminating crown-of-the-head contact outside the tackle box, for example) as proof of their good intentions.
But for those looking for true justice in this saga, realize this: Nearly 112 million people watched the last Super Bowl, a third of the country. It’s not just that the NFL has turned a blind eye to it has done to its front-line warriors; millions of us have, too.