Monday, the National Football League announced the suspension of safety Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens without pay for one game for repeated violations of the rule prohibiting hits to the head and neck area of defenseless players.
The news of Reed’s suspension follows a speech NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered at Harvard Thursday on the importance the NFL is placing on player safety, and an ESPN report that suggests the NFL has long been aware NFL players have been suffering concussions as a direct result of playing in the National Football League.
According to an ESPN/PBS report the NFL’s retirement board paid at least $2 million in benefits to NFL players in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The benefits were paid to three players, including Mike Webster a member of the Football Hall of Fame and the center on the four Pittsburgh Steelers 1970’s Super Bowl winning teams. Webster retired following the 1990 NFL season, finishing his career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
After his retirement, Webster suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute bone and muscle pain. Tragically he lived out of his pickup truck or in train stations between Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, despite friends and former teammates offering to rent apartments for him. In his last years Webster lived with his youngest son, Garrett, who though only a teenager at the time, had to act as the parent to his father. Webster's wife (Pamela) divorced him six months before his death in 2002. He was only 50 years old at the time of his death.
The seven-member NFL retirement board includes three owner representatives, three player representatives, and a non-voting representative of the NFL commissioner. Among its duties is deciding individual disability claims.
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 in his late client’s case as “the proverbial smoking gun.”
“It’s pretty devastating evidence,” Fitzsimmons told ESPN, who is not part of the lawsuit against the NFL. “If the NFL takes the position that they didn’t know or weren’t armed with evidence that concussions can cause total disability — permanent disability, permanent brain injury — in 1999, that evidence trumps anything they say.”
There are more than 4,000 former NFL players and their families suing the National Football League claiming the NFL withheld critical information about player safety from the 1920’s (when the league was founded) through 2009. The suit also claims the NFL deliberately allowed NFL players to play in games after they had suffered a concussion during an NFL game.
The NFL has claimed for years they didn’t understand the relationship between concussions and playing football.
ESPN’s Outside the Lines report suggests not only was the NFL aware of the inherent dangers associated with playing football, but with three player representatives on the NFL retirement board (and the board offering benefits to former players) the players were also aware of the dangers associated with playing football.
“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 in Neurosurgery, the official journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Whoever was on that NFL committee either wasn’t aware or ignored what the NFL retirement board had done a few short years earlier.
“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.”
The NFL which is trying to have the concussion lawsuit currently being heard in a Philadelphia Federal Court dismissed has had little to say since Friday’s ESPN report. The ESPN report represents both an embarrassment and a public relations nightmare for the National Football League but has a legal precedent been established, does the report move forward the claims made in the biggest lawsuit in sports history?
According to ESPN’s Lester Munson, the Webster case will have little if any impact on the lawsuit that is not sitting in a Philadelphia Federal Court and involves more than 4,000 different cases. Munson believes each case has to be treated separately, each concussion was different, and no two were alike.
The NFL insisted for years it never did anything to hide the potential harm relating to concussions, Munson contends the Webster case is just one case.
“Even though the Webster decision is clearly favorable to the players and embarrassing to the league, it may hurt the players in an ironic and unexpected way. The Webster decision was made by a board that was originally established by collective bargaining between the players and the owners. The owners, fearful of the amounts juries may award to hometown players, want the concussion claims to be resolved in arbitrations that would be conducted under the terms of the union contracts that were in force during a player's career.” Munson told ESPN.
“If Judge Brody is impressed with the board's decisions on the Webster group of cases, she may decide to send all of the current claims into arbitration. It would be a terrible setback for the players, and it would be the result of player triumphs in the earlier cases.”
Roger Goodell continues to make player safety one of his biggest concerns as NFL commissioner. Goodell’s long-term legacy might be tied to both the outcome of the lawsuit and player safety.
The damage to the reputation and to the image of the National Football League could hurt the sport in the eyes of the tens of millions of millions of people who watch and attend NFL games. Even more damaging could be how the league’s sponsors react. General Motors ended their relationship with the Super Bowl, moving away from the NFL and embracing soccer.
The NFL needs to settle this lawsuit. The league needs to reach an arrangement with its retired players offering their retired players better long-term medical benefits and a better pension plan. The NFL generates more than $9 billion in revenues annually. The NFL has a television contract that pays the NFL more than $4 billion a year. What will the average American and more importantly corporate America believe if the NFL making billions of dollars can’t and won’t take care of its own.
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom