Political blogger Andrew Sullivan had a post yesterday wondering if ‘Big Football’ would become the next Big Tobacco. Sullivan linked to a piece detailing a lawsuit brought forward by former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien and 125 other former players:
‘The lawsuit alleges that the NFL was aware of the risks of repetitive traumatic brain injury but hid the information and misled players, resulting in permanent brain damage or neurological disorders.”
We know about the evils of big tobacco, and it’s hyperbole to compare it to professional football. There are, however, serious repercussions for the NFL going forward, including the emergence of hundreds of similar lawsuits to the one filed by Rypien & Co. in eastern Pennsylvania.
The minority amongst retired pro athletes, Dave Duerson’s life after football was filled with success. A trustee at Notre Dame, Duerson had been approached by state Republicans to run against a little known Democrat for a seat in the Illinois State Senate (that Democrat currently lives in Washington in a house painted white). He declined the offer, citing a lack of interest in politics. As ESPN legal expert Lester Munson describes, the former Chicago Bears’ life would take an awful turn soon after:
“Over the next few years, he picked fights with banks, vendors and manufacturers who had been critical to his business, and he landed in a jumble of litigation and bankruptcy. Within view of a hotel concierge in South Bend, Ind., in February 2005, he threw his wife against a wall and was arrested and then forced to resign from the Notre Dame board. At a Congressional hearing in 2007, security officials (at least five of them) grabbed him as he seemed about to attack a 75-year-old retired NFL player.”
Four years after that congressional hearing Duerson would commit suicide. Before his final days he would tell friends he ‘wasn’t feeling right’ and wrote a note asking that his brain be examined after his death. Duerson’s estranged family filed a lawsuit against the NFL citing the league’s effort to convince players that concussions did not lead to forms of brain damage. I’ll leave the legalese to the lawyers – you should really read the entire Munson article.
The punishment handed out to the New Orleans Saints can’t be observed in a vacuum. A policy designed to inflict serious harm on other players does nothing to suggest the league understands the health problems faced by former players. Roger Goodell has a public relations problem that will not and should not go away.
While on the surface the suspensions received by Sean Payton, Gregg Williams and crew seem excessive, the NFL must be able to convince its sponsors, fans, and most importantly, its players, that playing in the NFL will not leave these men mentally incapacitated when the league no longer requires their services. Perhaps more importantly for cynical team owners and GMs, the feeder systems that supply the league with new talent may no longer be able to support football due to the legal precedents set by these lawsuits:
“Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society.”
If that doesn’t alarm the league’s executives, perhaps nothing will. America’s most popular game is faced with an apocalyptic scenario in which competitive football would no longer be financially viable.
In the coming weeks, months, and years, the only people with a tougher job than Goodell may be the NFL’s army of lawyers. With a class action suit expected to be filed in the coming months, could this be the NFL’s Waterloo?