75 veteran NFL players recently came together to file a sweeping lawsuit against the NFL and the businesses associated with the league's official helmet manufacturer Riddell. The suit, filed on behalf of players and their families, seeks to recover for damages the named players experienced as a result of head injuries and brain damage suffered during the course of their professional football careers.

The extensive suffering brought on by repeated blows to the head was sadly demonstrated earlier this year when Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears linebacker, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Prior to taking his life, Duerson repeatedly sought help to deal with his intense mental struggles and left instructions for his brain to be studied. Doctors and scientists examined Duerson’s brain carefully after his death. Authorities privy to the results disclosed that Duerson suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a condition brought on by repetitive head injuries. Many know this diagnosis better as either boxer's dementia or pugilistic dementia.

Those who experience repeated concussions and hard blows to the head can develop a wide range of symptoms including slurred or slow speech and manic behavior and/or severe depression. One of the most brutal cases of brain injury causing an adverse reaction involved former Professional Wrestler Chris Benoit. A successful and dynamic wrestler and public personality, Benoit murdered his wife and son in June of 2007 before hanging himself with a weight machine.

According to Benoit's Wikipedia page: "Tests were conducted on Benoit's brain by Julian Bailes, the head of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, and results showed that 'Benoit's brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient.' He was reported to have had an advanced form of dementia, similar to the brains of four retired NFL players who had suffered multiple concussions, sank into depression, and harmed themselves or others."

Recent years have seen the NFL institute harsh, unforgiving policies designed to minimize helmet to helmet contact. This year, players are already conplaining about a rule shift mandating kickoffs from the 35 yard line instead of the 30. Last year stiff fines were applied for spearing and launching. The moves are always explained as necessary to minimize player injuries, though the intent to injure doesn't always seem to be a deciding factor for an issued penalty or fine for a particular hit. These decisions effectively changed the dynamics of the game as more information and evidence began to emerge about brain injury and the long term effects of concussions suffered over the course of a player's career.

Concussions often go undocumented and undiagnosed, and brain issues can take decades to develop into major symptoms that can result in tragic consequences. A recent case of violent behavior reportedly brought on by brain injuries sustained during a football career emerged when former NFL Safety Corwin Brown shot himself in the torso during a nearly 7-hour standoff with police on August 12, 2011. Brown, who was not retained after a one year stint coaching with the New England Patriots in 2010, also allegedly assaulted his wife before shooting himself. Brown endured 8 seasons and at least 10 concussions during his NFL career, but he wasn't even a regular starter.

The player lawsuit also names Riddell, Inc. (the league's official equipment manufacturer since 1989), its affiliates, and parent company Easton-Bell Sports Incorporated. The complaint notes that in 1994, the NFL researched and documented the link between concussions and brain injury. Results published in 2004 had the NFL claiming there was no evidence of worsening injury from repeated blows to the head. The NFL also concluded that players could safely play in a game the same day they suffered a concussion if they didn't exhibit symptoms and were cleared by a doctor.

Finally, in June 2010 the NFL ultimately acknowledged that concussions can lead to long-term health problems, including dementia, memory loss, C.T.E. and related symptoms. The lawsuit cites the league publishing a warning to every player and team about the inherent risks and after effects of head injuries and concussions. C.T.E. is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated brain trauma. The Boston University School of Medicine Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy found C.T.E. in the brains of 14 out of 15 former NFL players they studied. That reality makes fines and penalties seem to be a fairly useless method of preventing long term brain injury issues for players.

The goal of the lawsuit is to provide healthcare expenses related to brain inuries for the named players and their families while also forcing the NFL to adopt more rules, guidelines, and policies that will adequately prevent or minimize future brain injuries. Possible changes to safety equipment, namely helmets, could also be a positive side effect of the suit. Players could also be forced to sit out of games and practice longer after sustaining concussions. Critics of the suit claim that players know they face risks when they sign up to play in the NFL and get paid as professionals to accept those risks.

The first major fines of the lockout-shortened 2011 NFL season went to Lions Defensive End Ndamukong Suh and Jaguars Linebacker Mike Lockley. Both will have to pay $20,000 and saw their teams penalized for their hits in the first preseason games of the season. Suh's fine comes after his roughing up of rookie Bengals Quarterback Andy Dalton after he released the ball. Dalton's helmet flew off in the exchange, but the hit did not appear to be overly vicious and did not cause any injury to Dalton. Lockley, an undrafted rookie, apparently led with his helmet on a hit to Patriots Rookie Receiver Taylor Price in the fourth quarter of last Thursday's preseason opener. Price did not appear to be hurt by the hit, either.

Fans who enjoy seeing hard hits and defensive players earning the league minimum could be the real losers in the long run if the NFL goes overboard with fines and overzealous safety-inspired changes. Though these moves are being made in good faith, they punish a select few for the brutal, hard-hitting culture of the game of football fostered over decades at the pro and college levels.

The NFL is compared to big tobacco in this suit for hiding their knowledge of the effects of brain issues caused by pro football careers. Yet, even after multiple landmark cases smokers continue to win against cigarette manufacturers there's no real effort to make smoking safer. Instead of making better filters or removing the bulk of the damaging chemicals from cigarettes, big tobacco traditionally eats the costs of the lawsuits and/or passes the buck to the consumer by raising per pack prices.

The grand solution for the NFL and Riddell should be to get together and put some more money into making safer protective equipment rather than fining players for each hit officials deem to be too vicious. Though there may be honorable intent behind imposing such fines, there will come a time where another lawsuit could arise due to the inherently subjective and arbitrary method of applying these fines to players who can't always afford them. Defensive linemen, linebackers, and safeties often make far less than their offensive colleagues and can sustain just as much damage in applying a big hit as those who take the hit. Only the worst hits that are clearly and blatantly intended to injure an opposing player should result in fines. Otherwise, let the players play and give them protective gear designed to minimize injury.


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