“My brain is fucking tired. They [National Football League owners] don’t care. I need to tell how my head is crazy and how football did it. The NFL puts paperwork in our faces and that’s it.” Le’Ron McClain, a retired pro-bowl player frantic to get help for his injuries, turned to Twitter in August in desperation. His heart-wrenching plea shocked the sports world and put player health on the front page.
McClain played fullback for seven years, a position with an average career of one third of that. Recent studies indicate a majority of all former players suffer from concussion-caused memory loss, anxiety, depression and dementia. All-Pro players Andrew Luck, Doug Baldwin and Rob Gronkowski all retired recently citing fears of additional head injuries.
Ugly truth. Despite mountains of proof, the league long denied the reality of brain injuries. Every medical report that warned of the dangers of head injuries would be followed by the league’s own statistics to refute them. After research showed NFL retirees have a life expectancy of 53 to 59 years, the league published their own 2012 study claiming players lived longer than the average U.S. male. They denounced their own 2008 study that showed former players suffer Alzheimer’s and dementia 19 times more than non-players.
Then former players like Junior Seau, Andre Waters, and Dave Duerson committed suicide. Autopsies showed all three players had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which destroys the brain from recurring trauma.
Nigerian-born Dr. Bennett Omalu first discovered CTE in 2002 when he performed an autopsy on Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster. CTE can only be found after death, using brain tissue analysis. In 2012, the brains of 111 deceased NFL players were examined — 110 had CTE. “There has been a fascination with CTE,’’ Omalu said recently. If (a football player) doesn’t have CTE it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have brain damage. Every child who plays football has a 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage.’’ The league’s response was to try to suppress his report.
In 2013, lawsuits from 4,500 former players were consolidated and settled, ultimately for $1 billion. It was supposed to last 65 years — it is already mostly gone. The settlement excluded anyone, including the family of Mike Webster, who died before 2006, and exonerated the NFL from charges of covering up what it knew and when about the effects of head trauma. The players settled because they were desperate and told they could have their own doctors.
Insult to injury. The all-white billionaires club that is the league shows their racist contempt for the players, 70 percent of whom are Black, by repeatedly challenging the settlement they signed. In June their appeals won them a victory that seriously limits players’ right to choose their doctors. The judge also dismissed four of the five doctors from the program after their patients were awarded $46 million. She granted the league’s demand to hire a fraud investigator.
The NFL seeks to disqualify players and pursue criminal charges for minor mistakes in a claim package. This shows true chutzpah since these forms are filled out by people in various stages of dementia.
Only 20 percent of the most obvious, serious claims have been approved — death with CTE, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Only 14 percent have been paid. Workers compensation cash awards vary from state-to-state. Players competing on teams in the South receive smaller payments. Most retirees are out of the league before the age of 30 and cannot collect a pension until age 55, so the concussion settlement is their only recourse.
The NFL: Who needs it? Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones scoffs that the league’s concussion problem is “a pimple on a baby’s ass.’’ Really? Then why not pay all claims for retired, present and future players? Maybe that will put the NFL out of business, and that might not be such a bad thing.
Contact sports journalist Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org.