Philadelphia, PA – Over 4,000 former NFL players say the NFL glorified violence and hid known concussion risks for years.
They also took me off to the side and said there is no Santa Claus.
U.S. District Judge Anita Brody heard arguments on Tuesday in Philadelphia on whether a series of lawsuits against the NFL belong in courtroom or in arbitration.
Brody's ultimate decision, which could take months, will either enable those thousands of players to pursue lawsuits, or find that head injuries are covered under the health provisions of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players.
The difference would likely shift billions of dollars, spark appeals by the loser and spawn years of litigation.
NFL lawyer Paul Clement argued that teams bear the chief responsibility for health and safety under the CBA, along with the players' union and the players themselves.
"The clubs are the ones who had doctors on the sidelines who had primary responsibility for sending players back into the game," Clement said at a news conference after the hearing.
Players' lawyer David Frederick countered with the glorification and monetization card, citing the hard-hitting NFL Films productions often highlighting big hits.
To me and many others, that's a red herring and should be stipulated to by both sides because it's common knowledge both sides knew of and benefited from those types of videos.
The far more serious charge from Frederick accused the league of concealing studies linking concussions to neurological problems for decades, even after the NFL created a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee in 1994.
That's not only plausible, it's been the league's calling card.
Remember the StarCaps story?
At one point in the legal jockeying during that case, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson dismissed a lawsuit brought by the NFLPA behalf of Minnesota Vikings Pat and Kevin Williams and a few others.
However, Magnuson sent the original lawsuit back to the more liberal Minnesota State Court. Magnuson clearly loathed the NFL's position and behavior in the case, but, because of the one-sided collective bargaining agreement that the players signed with the league, was handcuffed and unable to do anything about it.
So, he tried (and ultimately failed) to send the whole mess back to Minnesota, troubled that NFL executives knew StarCaps contained bumetanide but did not notify the players.
Legally, the NFL did not have that responsibility but seemed to be playing a game of "Gotcha" instead of instituting a meaningful, substantive drug testing program that helped its players.
During the case, the NFL's "independent" drug administrator, Dr. John Lombardo, acknowledged that he learned in late 2006 that StarCaps contained bumetanide and didn't inform the players, claiming that "he feared that a specific warning regarding StarCaps could be used as a defense to alleged violations of the steroid policy that involved weight reduction products other than StarCaps."
By failing to disclose the fact bumetanide was in StarCaps, the league essentially entrapped players for ingesting an over-the-counter supplement. Perhaps more importantly, though, the NFL exposed its own players to significant health risks associated with the unintentional ingestion of diuretics.
The point being, the NFL's policies have always favored public relations over its players.
Frederick brought that kind of accusation to the forefront again Tuesday, taking direct aim at the brain injury committee.
"It set up a sham committee designed to get information about neurological risks, but in fact spread misinformation," Frederick said.
It might have been a sham back in 1994 but things have gotten better in recent years, at least according to concussion expert Christopher Nowinski.
"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," 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.
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 a neurodegenerative disease known as Chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
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, the NFL has 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."
Is it too little, too late, though?
Over one-third of the league's 12,000 former players have joined the current litigation since the first suit was filed in 2011.
Some who have committed suicide over the years were battling with depression and alcoholism. Some who are still with us today struggle with pain medication, dementia, Alzheimer's or even ALS.
Drawing a straight line from all of those problems back to concussions strikes me as the easy way out.
Head injuries are just part of a cocktail that has been created by the NFL 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 specious and convenient.
Almost too convenient.
It seems like the American public is always looking for an answer and the black and white one will do for a society far too easily distracted to seek out the real truth -- one that can always be found by following the money.
The NFL's tougher stand on concussions began as a strategy designed to fend off alert media members and save its significant share of a $9 billion-a-year industry. It was never about the health and well being of its athletes, but that's been the unintended consequence and a welcome ancillary benefit.
And that's a start.