Dave Duerson reportedly shot himself in the chest instead of the head so that he could die without damaging his brain. According to the complaint filed in the so-called "NFL Concussion Lawsuit," Duerson had been suffering months of headaches, blurred vision and memory loss. He wanted his brain to be studied so that what he suspected could be proven: that the debilitating symptoms he suffered and the abusive behavior it brought on during the final months of his life weren't him, but were caused by the bashing his brain took over the course of his eleven-year National Football League (NFL) career.
An autopsy of his brain revealed significant signs of trauma, including advanced CTE. CTE is a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head. Based on this result, and on similar findings for dozens more deceased NFL players, researchers concluded what scientific evidence had indicated for decades: that playing football, with its repeated hits to the head and its unwritten code of "if you can walk, you can play," can cause irreparable and incurable damage to the brain.
In 2012, more than 4,500 players, spouses, and representatives filed the NFL concussion lawsuit, suing the NFL for compensation for former players' neurological deterioration and recognition that it came as a result of playing NFL football.
The NFL concussion lawsuit contains many allegations against the league. Two such allegations are that the NFL (1) knew about the long-term health risks associated with concussions and repeated blows to the head and (2) deliberately ignored and actively concealed this information in order to protect the economic value of the game. Some of the specific theories of liability in the master complaint filed with the court include:
The Proposed Settlement
In 2013, the NFL concussion lawsuit was tentatively settled for $765 million. However, as of May, 2014, the judge presiding over the case has rejected the settlement and has ordered both sides to present evidence that the settlement amount is fair and adequate. While $765 million is a lot of money, it's important to note that the NFL earns more than $9 billion every year.
The Beaten Brain: Players' Neurological Damage
The master complaint alleges that players suffered repetitive traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, during NFL games. As a result, players have reportedly suffered symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, memory loss, insomnia, dementia, mood swings, and ALS.
This brain deterioration may have contributed to the deaths of many NFL players. For example, before former linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide at age 43, he began having fits of unprovoked anger and started gambling uncharacteristically. Before he died at age 50, Mike Webster, the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers center, suffered from insomnia so bad he had to be tasered just so he could fall asleep. And after former defensive back Andre Waters committed suicide at age 44, doctors said his brain tissue had deteriorated to that of an 85-year old man with early stage Alzheimer's disease.
Effects on the Rest of Us
Since the NFL concussion lawsuit began, the NFL has continued to change rules to enhance safety, fund brain injury research, and create youth football programs that teach kids proper tackling. Equipment manufacturers continuously evolve helmet technology to track and reduce the effects of hits to the head. Whether any of this can significantly improve safety in a game that requires violent contact on every play is unknown.
The effects of concussions and hits to the head are not limited to the NFL, either. Research has emerged indicating that high school and college football players have suffered brain injuries similar to those of NFL players. This means that youth football leagues, high schools, colleges, and their equipment providers may one day face liability for head trauma caused by the game. While parents and children assume the risk of injuries that can occur when playing football, long-term brain injuries may be outside of such contemplated risks.
As of 2014, the NFL maintains that more research is needed to determine the effects on the brain from playing football. Those currently playing will likely accept the risks as part of their lives. The question is whether parents who are considering signing their child up for pee-wee league football, or watching their son board the team bus, helmet in hand, will feel comfortable waiting for the NFL's research to be completed.
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