Monday, March 31, 2014

What Price Do You Put on a Damaged Brain?

When it comes to the debate on sports related concussions (especially in football) it is a subject I am not afraid to wage into because I feel very strongly about it emotionally. While I’ve talked about my own personal issues and experiences with concussions for more than 20 years, many people inside and outside of sports thought I was a little insane to speak out publicly on a subject that very few would bring up for discussion. The concussion issue has now become a very hot button topic not just in the United States but worldwide.  I thought this topic was appropriate to comment on at this time based on recent legal developments surrounding the August 2013 “proposed” settlement between the National Football League and over 4500 retired football players who had filed lawsuits against the League. Those lawsuits stemmed from the contention that the NFL knew about the dangers of on-field head injuries long before it did enough about them, and that those players affected have not been helped enough in their post-football lives.

Most families within the retired player community felt that any settlement with the National Football League would take many years to be reached or resolved. So, when a proposed settlement of $765 million dollars plus the cost of attorney fees was announced just prior to the beginning of the National Football League season, it took many, even journalists off guard. The amount agreed upon seemed generous enough on the surface (at the time) but looking at the smaller print gave people a reason to hesitate and take a pause over the “proposed” settlement. The $765 million dollars over a 20 year time frame did several things from my viewpoint. First, the positive with the agreement was, it would provide money immediately for the families of players who needed financial assistance to care for former players who have already been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS or Parkinson’s Disease as a result of concussions or a Traumatic Brain Injuries sustained playing in the National Football League. Second, a negative impact was with the timing of the settlement agreement. Some retired players felt that part of the reason for the NFL’s eagerness in agreeing to the settlement was to make the dark cloud hanging over the “image” of the NFL disappear or go away before the opening kickoff of the 2013 football season.  Third, the average playing career in the National Football League is less than 4 years. With a proposed $765 million dollar settlement, if accepted and agreed upon by the court, there would be 5 generations of former players eliminated from suing the National Football League for any kind of negligence involving concussions or head injuries and the cumulative effects sustained playing football on the professional level.

For clarification sake, my reason for lending my voice to the concussion conversation has always been to speak from a first person perspective on the subject but also to speak for those who no longer have a voice to be heard. I understood a long time ago of the impact of the concussions I gave and received as a player on the field. But I was also aware of the lingering ramifications of brain injuries off the field later in life. Knowing what I knew from firsthand experience, I intentionally opted to keep my distance from being a plaintiff in any lawsuits against the National Football League. My rationale was, I did not want my message regarding concussions to be misconstrued by anyone as being financially driven.

In January 2014, United States District Judge Anita Brody refused to accept the proposed $765,000,000 settlement offer from the National Football League and the attorneys representing the over 4,500 Player plaintiffs. She wrote, "I am primarily concerned that not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis or their (families) ... will be paid."  It seemed that Judge Brody doubts that the $765 million is sufficient to cover the players and that some of the parameters to qualify for portions of the settlement monies are too narrow or restrictive. Bottom line, she doubted the fairness of the agreement.

The refusal of Judge Brody accepting the settlement should send a message not only to the retired football player community but also to college and high school players, coaches and administrations of the potential liabilities of football. More importantly, while this issue is primarily a sports (NFL) related issue, it is one that every parent with a son who wants to play football on any level should be aware and concerned.
To me, when it comes to lawsuits and football, I don’t pretend to wonder what’s reasonable or just and what’s not. I just hope Judge Brody gets both parties to agree on what is fair especially for those who never knew the hazards they signed up for on the field. The burning question that is most important to me is this: What is the appropriate price to be placed on a damaged brain? Having played the game on the high school, college and professional levels I certainly know of the physical toll the games takes on the human body. I am very much aware that injured knees can be replaced, hips and shoulders can be replaced as a result of injuries sustained in playing the game of football. But we all only have one brain! And that one brain cannot be replaced. In spite of helmets that are now more technologically advanced and superior to helmets used in previous eras of football, the helmet still can only protect the skull, not the brain.

In my opinion, Judge Brody did the right thing in following her gut instincts that not enough money would be set aside for the players who may be diagnosed with some type of neurological abnormality in the future.
I consider myself connected with former players around the country. From Hall of Fame Players to those who only played a year on special teams, I get to meet and interact with many of my football brethren at events, via email, by text messages or by phone.  I think I’ve seen more than the average person when it comes to retired players. What I am about to say is purely my own opinion. I feel that we are standing on the precipice of the beginning stages of an epidemic of players from the 1960s, 1970s and possibly 1980s who will begin to be diagnosed with some type of neurological disorder that will necessitate family members and loved ones becoming caregivers. For those players who never knew of the consequences of sustaining head trauma playing football I would say on their behalf to Judge Brody that there is no price or dollar figure worth the cost of a healthy brain.