Published August 30, 2013
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – The NFL got off easy.
That was my first thought after seeing the league's concussion settlement with its former players. After all, it always seems like the NFL's talent is on the wrong side of negotiations, be it labor or legal.
Agreeing to take $765 million over the next 20 years to provide medical benefits and injury compensation for more than 4,500 retired NFL players or their families seemed like a drop in the bucket compared to the profits that will reach into the tens of billions over that same time frame.
This was a chance for the retired players to finally drop the Sword of Damocles on a league which allegedly ignored decades of research on the degenerative long-term effects of brain trauma.
As far back as 1937, the American Football Coaches Association declared that concussed players should be taken out of a game immediately, and by 1952 a study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine encouraged players who suffer three concussions to leave football behind for their own safety.
It took until 1994 before the NFL finally acknowledged the danger of concussions by forming the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, a Paul Tagliabue rubber-stamp co-chaired by his personal doctor Elliot Pellman.
"It set up a sham committee designed to get information about neurological risks, but in fact spread misinformation," Players' lawyer David Frederick argued back in April.
In 1997 the NFL rejected the independent American Academy of Neurology's guidelines for players returning to action after being concussed.
Five years later Dr. Bennet Omalu examined the brain of Mike Webster and found a dark accumulation of tau protein, evidence of a neurological degenerative brain disease he called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.
It then took until 2009 before the NFL finally acknowledged the effects of head trauma when league spokesman Greg Aiello said: "It's quite obvious from the medical research that's been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems."
"NFL medical leaders have said that it was the meticulous research of Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the neuropathology laboratory for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers that published a study linking Lou Gehrig's death to concussions, that opened their eyes to the depth of the problem, and having been in those meetings. I think that changed their minds about the risks of brain trauma," concussion expert Christopher Nowinski said in a previous interview with The Sports Network.
Nowinski, a former World Wrestling Entertainment performer and Harvard football player with a long history of concussions, along with Dr. Robert Cantu, founded the Massachusetts-based Sports Legacy Institute in 2007.
Post-mortem analysis of the brain tissue by the SLI of former contact sports athletes has revealed that repetitive brain injuries, both concussions and non-concussive blows, could lead to CTE.
In recent years, dozens of former NFL players have been diagnosed after their deaths with CTE, and the tragic suicide deaths of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters have magnified the issue.
Nowinski himself was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in June 2003 after getting his bell rung during a WWE match in Hartford, Conn. He performed for three more weeks before his symptoms became worse and he was forced to take an extended leave of absence before finally calling it quits when things hadn't cleared up a year later.
Nowinski began studying the suicide of Waters, the former Eagles star who shot himself at age 44 in 2006, and also played an integral role in the discovery of CTE in former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who was killed in a car crash in 2004 at 36 after a 37-mile police chase at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.
His work helped alert an asleep-at-the-wheel media to the problems going on in the NFL, as well as the NHL, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts and boxing.
Fearing a backlash and serious monetary issues, the NFL slowly implemented a much tougher policy regarding diagnosed concussions, including an examination by an independent physician not involved in any way with the team of the affected player.
Problems still exist, but Nowinski has called the current policy "strong."
And that's the current landscape the retired players and their legal team were facing.
They could have fought and certainly produced a mountain of evidence supporting the NFL's willful negligence. But, a well-heeled defense team was also at the ready with dozens of experts set to refute certain aspects of the players' claims.
Some who have committed suicide over the years were battling with depression and alcoholism. Some who are still with us today with dementia, Alzheimer's or even ALS struggle with pain medication.
Drawing a straight line from all of those problems back to concussions is a simple, perhaps naive conclusion which could be easily attacked by the opposition.
Did Seau pull the trigger to take his own life because of concussions or money problems?
Talk about shades of gray.
Head injuries in the NFL are part of a cocktail created by the league's lifestyle, and as egregious as the NFL's behavior can be at times, blaming concussions for every single NFL-related tragedy is not only unfair, it's far too convenient.
Remember, justice is never about emotion.
The players' legal team had to tackle this topic logically and trying to kill the golden goose that was willing to lay a $765 million dollar egg wasn't the prudent decision.