Green Room

When did the NFL know of concussion dangers?

posted at 12:26 pm on November 18, 2012 by

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 The approvals were outlined in previously unpublished documents and medical records (pdf) related to the 1999 disability claim of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.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.

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Just spitballing here, but when they decided to go with helmets?

rdbrewer on November 18, 2012 at 12:42 PM

I read this report the other day. Doesn’t surprise me. The NFL is big business.

a capella on November 18, 2012 at 12:57 PM

I didn’t realize the NFL was a medical research organization.

xblade on November 18, 2012 at 1:21 PM

*yawn*

It’s football…not ballet.

Next, let’s make boxing, hangliding and cliff diving “safer”.

wtf has happened to this place?

Tim_CA on November 18, 2012 at 1:24 PM

Let’s wait until the 5 year investigation the NFL is holding is done before we come to any conclusions.

DeathtotheSwiss on November 18, 2012 at 1:26 PM

Breaking News: 200lb-300lb people slamming into each other for a living have physical problems later in life.

portlandon on November 18, 2012 at 1:31 PM

I think I see Susan Rice’s next job opening.

Left Coast Right Mind on November 18, 2012 at 2:29 PM

Uh, when did the NFL human race know of concussion dangers from constantly being hit in the head?

Pork-Chop on November 18, 2012 at 3:59 PM

Uh, when did the NFL human race know of concussion dangers from constantly being hit in the head?

Pork-Chop on November 18, 2012 at 3:59 PM

I suspect parents of Pee Wee and high school level players may have not seen proof. Now they have and it will affect the sport long term. These discovery findings, plus the outcome of the 4000 player lawsuit, now pending, will set the stage for financial liabiliy at all levels. Any kid who has ever played football, who develops a CNS problem later in life, now has a shot at the brass ring. Kid leagues and high schools won’t be able to afford the liability insurance. So, this is a big deal for the sport as a whole.

a capella on November 18, 2012 at 4:40 PM

The fact that anyone would turn to their employer for medical advice is proof of a brain injury.

Ronnie on November 18, 2012 at 5:09 PM

All I know is Super Bowl XLIX in a few years is shaping up to be a real hum-dinger http://is.gd/ncnIKR

Afterseven on November 18, 2012 at 6:10 PM

Hostess yesterday, NFL tomorrow. Evolve.

Alpha_Male on November 18, 2012 at 7:33 PM

Good article here…
http://aol.sportingnews.com/nfl/story/2011-07-07/john-mackey-and-other-retired-nfl-players-experience-living-hell

I think the problem stems from concussions being treated just like any injury. If you appear to be okay you can return to the game. From what I read there are two problems…the number of concussions and returning to play too soon afterward. I think it would be common sense, people have known there can be problems from concussions for many years. If you or I suffered a possible concussion as a worker I doubt that our employer would want us to get up and get right back to work. I think the NFL can blame itself for this mess. I also read that the NFL has been stingy with medical care for its retirees, especially the older ones.

Deanna on November 18, 2012 at 8:00 PM

this is the next “cigarettes cause cancer and the tobacco companies knew about it” scandal….Alas, its even simpler than that. Football is a collision sport. People get head injuries and mostly they’re the ones that play it for a long time with huge strong dudes.

shocka*

ted c on November 18, 2012 at 11:44 PM

High School. They knew in High School. Every HS football player I’ve ever met talks about how they get concussions fairly regularly.

And anyone who doesn’t realize that years and years of smashing your brain against the inside your skull is going to do some permanent damage to it hasn’t much use for the thing anyway.

29Victor on November 19, 2012 at 2:56 AM

Uh, when did the NFL human race know of concussion dangers from constantly being hit in the head?

Pork-Chop on November 18, 2012 at 3:59 PM

Apparently none of these players have ever seen Rocky V, or Mike Tyson.

29Victor on November 19, 2012 at 2:57 AM

Probably 50 years ago. It’s a violent game. People who play the game willingly assume the risk. If you don’t understand that you could get seriously hurt, permanantly damaged, or prematurely dead from playing football you have serious problems.

dczombie on November 19, 2012 at 10:05 AM

The retirement board is likely made up of sympathetic former players and NOT doctors. So when they decide they feel bad for a guy and give him money, that is NOT the same as doctors drawing a conclusive link between concussions playing football and long term damage.

Its just not the same.

Certainly if the case ever went to a jury, the idiots that re-elected Obama would probably see it that way, but the fact is, this isn’t evidence of anything.

Furthermore, LOTS of players get concussions. Troy Aikman got plenty. And yet he is in good enough shape to work as a Fox analyst. If the link were THAT solid, there would be way more than THREE examples.

deadrody on November 19, 2012 at 11:10 AM

I suspect parents of Pee Wee and high school level players may have not seen proof. Now they have and it will affect the sport long term. These discovery findings, plus the outcome of the 4000 player lawsuit, now pending, will set the stage for financial liabiliy at all levels. Any kid who has ever played football, who develops a CNS problem later in life, now has a shot at the brass ring. Kid leagues and high schools won’t be able to afford the liability insurance. So, this is a big deal for the sport as a whole.

a capella on November 18, 2012 at 4:40 PM

No they don’t. Certainly not going forward when every single player at every level wiill have to agree that they are playing at their own risk. You break a leg, we’ll pay for it. When your season is done, our liability is over.

deadrody on November 19, 2012 at 11:11 AM

I call BS, both on Morrissey and the NFL who is only engaging in CYA.
(Ed will say that he’s only floating the idea – like “moderates” DO)
Ever play football, Ed? Ever play hockey without a helmet, ever fight, Ed?
I thought not.
Mike Webster was a man’s man. He was also a troubled alcoholic gutter drunk. I was THE biggest Steelers fan anywhere in the desert – and won a few buck$ in the process. I also happen to have the educational and professional bonafides to comment on this:
The Society of Victimology seems to have a lot of people fooled.
“Dementia Pugilistica” is very real, as Cassius Clay can attest.
(couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy)
But that is not what is at issue here.
It’s all bogus. I would quote chapter and verse if it didn’t fall upon deaf ears.
EVERY man who uses his body to make a living sacrifices a portion of it. Pro ball players have much more of a goal (in more way$ than one) from which to benefit. The time is up. Get over it. Move on. So your employer used you. BFD. How many construction workers, brick-layers, roofers, landscapers, etc., etc. are wasted physically before age 50, but have NO recourse.
The NFL whiners can pound sand.
~(Ä)~

Karl Magnus on November 19, 2012 at 12:23 PM

No brainer that smacking heads causes brain damage.

Al this bashing of the NFL for concussions is b-s, though. This is a game. People CHOOSE to play it. Seeing as this is a political blog I’d point out that people are free to make their own CHOICES with regards to their personal health. Isn’t that why we all hate Obama Care?

Bashing the NFL is fun for people who for whatever off reason would love to watch soccer players run around in tight shorts – however it is unnecessary. If you play a sport, by choice, and get paid for it then you’ve made your choice to take the risk of getting hurt. There is nothing else to it.

eski502 on November 19, 2012 at 12:37 PM