Some 2,000 former NFL players sued the league on Thursday, alleging it deliberately and fraudulently concealed the risk of brain injury from players while marketing the ferocity and brutality of the game.
The master complaint joined more than 80 lawsuits previously filed by former players on a topic that has generated increasing concern following the suicides of former players such Junior Seau in May, Ray Easterling in April and Dave Duerson last year.
The suit seeks unspecified financial compensation for fraud, misrepresentation and negligence against the NFL, a $9 billion annual industry that is the pinnacle for a sport also played at hundreds of colleges, thousands of high schools and youth leagues across the United States.
The lawsuit, which remains open for other players to join, also names as a defendant official NFL helmet maker Riddell Inc. and affiliated companies including parent corporation Easton-Bell Sports Inc.
"The NFL and its agents continued to market, as it had in the past, the ferocity and brutality of the sport that, in part, gives rise to the latent and debilitating neurocognitive conditions and injuries from which plaintiffs suffer," said the 86-page lawsuit filed at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Even after the NFL formed its own Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994 to study the impact of concussions and sub-concussive injuries on players, the league failed to inform players of the risks, the suit claims.
"For 16 years, the NFL actively and continuously denied any link between MTBI ... and the neurological symptoms and problems (such as headaches, dizziness, loss of memory, dementia and ALS) from which they (players) now suffer," the suit said.
The NFL labeled the suit groundless and called attention to "numerous extensive benefits programs" for former players, including one that has disbursed $17.5 million to more than 200 players and their families.
"The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit," the NFL said in a statement.
Anthony Tarricone, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, called the NFL programs "woefully inadequate," saying they fail to provide the medical monitoring and evaluation that retired players need.
"We believe one of the effects of this lawsuit will be to make the game safer and force the NFL and really all sports leagues to scrutinize their return-to-play rules," he said.
Former players complain precautions against brain injury have only been implemented in recent years and that players from decades past were exposed to long-term neurological injuries as a result of repeated impacts, sometimes returning to play in the same game after suffering concussions.
Among those suing is Kevin Turner, 42, a former Philadelphia Eagles running back who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which he believes was caused by injuries sustained while playing in the NFL. Turner has agreed to donate his brain for study after his death.
"Of course everybody that plays football has got to know there are inherent risks," Turner said on a conference call with reporters, saying he was willing to risk injuries to his neck, back or knees for the love of the game.
"But not once do I recall being told ... make sure you report if you are seeing stars or getting bad headaches or losing your memory after you hit somebody," Turner said.
Also suing the league is Mary Ann Easterling, widow of Ray Easterling, 62, a former Atlanta Falcons safety who committed suicide in April after she said he was diagnosed with dementia following 20 years of depression and insomnia.
Junior Seau, 43, a fan favorite who played for 20 years with the San Diego Chargers and other teams, shot himself in the chest on May 2 but left no suicide note, raising questions whether he wanted his brain to be studied.
In February 2011, former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson, 50, killed himself with a gunshot to the chest after complaining of headaches, blurred vision and memory loss, leaving a note with the request: "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank." (For a Reuters graphic on head injuries, see http://link.reuters.com/xen68s)
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)