Scores of lawsuits involving thousands of former players touched by concussions and brain injuries have been consolidated into one master complaint, setting up a massive and potentially costly case for the NFL.
Lawyers for the players filed the complaint Thursday in Philadelphia, accusing the NFL of hiding information that linked football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries. Among the illnesses cited were dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
The plaintiffs hope to hold the NFL responsible for the care of players suffering from those health problems.
"The NFL must open its eyes to the consequences of its actions," said Kevin Turner, a former running back with the Patriots and Eagles who has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). "The NFL has the power not only to give former players the care they deserve, but also to ensure that future generations of football players do not suffer the way that many in my generation have."
Also named in the suit was helmet-maker Riddell, Inc.
The suit accuses the NFL of "mythologizing" and glorifying violence through the media, including its NFL Films division.
"The NFL, like the sport of boxing, was aware of the health risks associated with repetitive blows producing sub-concussive and concussive results and the fact that some members of the NFL player population were at significant risk of developing long-term brain damage and cognitive decline as a result," the complaint charges.
"Despite its knowledge and controlling role in governing player conduct on and off the field, the NFL turned a blind eye to the risk and failed to warn and/or impose safety regulations governing this well-recognized health and safety problem."
In response, the NFL cited the many health programs it runs for current and former players, and a series of medical benefits to former NFL players to help them after football. Those include joint replacement, neurological evaluations and spine treatment programs, assisted living partnerships, long-term care insurance, prescription benefits, life insurance programs, and a Medicare supplement program.
"The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so," the league said in a statement. "Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's many actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."
The league added that in partnership with the NFL Players Association it has spent more than a billion dollars on pensions, medical and disability benefits for retired players.
Turner, however, sees little positive coming from those programs.
"For the longest time, about the first 10 years after I retired in January 2000, I thought I had just turned into a loser overnight," he said. "I couldn't figure out what was wrong. It was a very scary proposition — until I found out there were a lot more guys just like me. I find they had been through some of the same struggles. I realized this is no longer a coincidence."
Attorneys for the players said they were not trying to tear apart the NFL, only to ensure that it lives up to its obligations to provide a safer sport. And that it offers proper care for those who have retired from the game.
Mary Ann Easterling echoed those thoughts.
She will remain a plaintiff despite the April suicide of her husband, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who had been a named plaintiff in a suit filed last year. Easterling, 62, suffered from undiagnosed dementia for many years that left him angry and volatile, his widow said. He acted out of character, behaving oddly at family parties and making risky business decisions that eventually cost them their home. They were married 36 years and had one daughter. She believes the NFL has no idea what families go through.
"I wish I could sit down with (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell) and share with him the pain. It's not just the spouses, it's the kids, too," Easterling, 59, told The Associated Press from her home in Richmond, Va. "Kids don't understand why Dad is angry all the time.
"I think the thing that was so discouraging was just the denial by the NFL."
The list of notable former players connected to concussion lawsuits is extensive and includes the family of Dave Duerson, who shot himself last year.
According to an AP review of 81 lawsuits filed through May 25, the plaintiffs include 2,138 former players. The total number of plaintiffs in those cases is 3,356, which includes players, spouses and other relatives or representatives.
Some of the plaintiffs are named in more than one complaint, but the AP count did not include duplicated names in its total. The master suit contains a provision to allow other players to join it as plaintiffs and attorneys expect that to happen.
"I just want the NFL to stand up and be accountable for its actions," Turner said. "That is how we can prevent more people from suffering and keeping this game that has plenty of benefits. But we can make it safer and I am hoping that's what we do."
Associated Press Writer Maryclaire Dale contributed to this story from Philadelphia.