After congressional hearings, increased media attention and revised rules, the NFL's concussion saga has entered its next phase: litigation.
More than 125 former pro football players are suing the league — and, in most cases, helmet-maker Riddell — via at least five complaints brought in state or federal courts over the past few months and as recently as last week. They say the NFL should have done more to warn about the dangers of head injuries and should do more to help retired players.
"We've moved on from a debate about whether or not it's really a problem — it's clear it is — to the next question: What do we do about it?" said Richard Lewis, a lawyer representing players in a class-action suit filed in California state court.
There also are at least three personal-injury cases against the NFL pending in California, along with a case filed in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania. They're believed to be the first examples of former players joining together to file concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL. Many players' wives also are plaintiffs.
"We have three goals. One is to make necessary changes so that others playing this game don't go the same way. The second goal is to set up a medical process so these people can have medical attention for this injury as long as they need it. And the third goal is to get compensation," said Thomas Girardi, who is representing several dozen former players in two of the personal-injury complaints. "Some of these people are unable to work in a work setting because of their inability to understand common concepts."
The NFL's stance, as explained by outside counsel Brad Karp in a telephone interview, essentially focuses on these ideas:
— players knew there were risks of injury when they decided to play football;
— there was no misconduct or liability on the part of the NFL;
— any such claims should be addressed via arbitration, as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players' union, not in court — an argument made in a filing by the league to shift cases from state to federal court.
"The NFL has long made player safety a priority. It is continuing to make player safety a priority. And the NFL is not legally responsible for the medical difficulties that some players now are facing," said Karp, whose law firm, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, has represented the league in various matters for 20 or so years.
"Head injuries, including concussions and the possible effects of concussions, have long been known risks of playing football," Karp added. "Players have known about the risks of playing football, they have chosen to play football notwithstanding those risks, and in so doing, have assumed those risks and all of their possible consequences."
The complaints filed in three of the cases are identical in some passages, particularly in supporting their contention that the "NFL fraudulently concealed the long-term effects of concussions." They say that while the NFL warned current players in a June 2010 poster put in locker rooms about "long-term risks associated with multiple concussions, including dementia," neither the league nor Riddell cautioned retired players.
Most of the players listed as plaintiffs are not household names, although former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon is included in the complaint filed in Pennsylvania.
Jack Yeo, who works at a public relations firm representing Riddell, declined a request for an interview with a lawyer or employee of the helmet maker, saying Riddell's policy is not to comment on pending litigation.
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