When did the NFL know of concussion dangers?
posted at 12:26 pm on November 18, 2012 by Ed Morrissey
This is a disturbing report from PBS about the lack of action by the NFL on the long-term dangers of concussion injuries. The last couple of years, the league has aggressively intervened to keep players from taking more damage while they recover from concussions, but they have claimed to have not known about those dangers prior to that. While the league denied a link between concussions and long-term brain disease, however, their independent retirement board had a track record of acknowledging those links:
The NFL’s retirement board awarded disability payments to at least three former players after concluding that football caused their crippling brain injuries — even as the league’s top medical experts for years consistently denied any link between the sport and long-term brain damage.
The board paid at least $2 million in disability benefits to the players in the late 1990s and 2000s, documents obtained in a joint investigation by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and FRONTLINE show. The approvals were outlined in previously unpublished documents and medical records (pdf) related to the 1999 disability claim of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.
The board’s conclusion that Webster and other players suffered brain damage from playing in the NFL could be critical evidence in an expanding lawsuit against the league filed in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylania. The lawsuit (pdf), which involves nearly 4,000 former players, alleges that the NFL for years denied the risks of long-term brain damage and “propagated its own industry funded and falsified research to support its position.”
Bob Fitzsimmons, a Wheeling, W.Va., lawyer who represented Webster in his disability case and is co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, described the retirement board’s conclusions as “the proverbial smoking gun.”
Webster’s case is particularly provocative:
Yet in a series of scientific papers from 2003 to 2009, members of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee wrote that “no NFL player” had experienced chronic brain damage from repeated concussions. The committee, first formed in 1994, asserted that NFL players were different than boxers, whose susceptibility to brain injuries caused by the sport has been documented since the 1920s.
“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis,” members of the NFL committee wrote in a December 2005 paper inNeurosurgery, the official journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.
However, board documents obtained by Outside the Lines and FRONTLINE show that the NFL retirement board determined in 1999 that repeated blows to the head had left Webster, who spent most of his 17-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, “totally and permanently” disabled. The board based its finding on the diagnoses of five doctors, including a Cleveland neurologist hired by the board to examine the player. The doctors described Webster as “childlike” and showing signs of dementia.
“The Retirement Board determined that Mr. Webster’s disability arose while he was an Active Player,” wrote Sarah E. Gaunt, director of the NFL’s retirement plan, in a May 8, 2000 letter to Fitzsimmons. The medical reports, she wrote, “indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs.”
I’d say the league has a few questions to answer about this new information.