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Sunday, November 18, 2012
NFL Board Paid $2M to Players While League Denied Football-Concussion Link
The NFL’s retirement board awarded disability payments to at least three former players after concluding that football caused their crippling brain injuries — even as the league’s top medical experts for years consistently denied any link between the sport and long-term brain damage.
The board paid at least $2 million in disability benefits to the players in the late 1990s and 2000s, documents obtained in a joint investigation by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and FRONTLINE show. The approvals were outlined in previously unpublished documents and medical records (pdf) related to the 1999 disability claim of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.
The board’s conclusion that Webster and other players suffered brain damage from playing in the NFL could be critical evidence in an expanding lawsuit against the league filed in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylania. The lawsuit (pdf), which involves nearly 4,000 former players, alleges that the NFL for years denied the risks of long-term brain damage and “propagated its own industry funded and falsified research to support its position.”
Bob Fitzsimmons, a Wheeling, W.Va., lawyer who represented Webster in his disability case and is co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, described the retirement board’s conclusions as “the proverbial smoking gun.”
“It’s pretty devastating evidence,” said Fitzsimmons, who is not part of the lawsuit against the NFL. “If the NFL takes the position that they didn’t know or weren’t armed with evidence that concussions can cause total disability — permanent disability, permanent brain injury — in 1999, that evidence trumps anything they say.”
The NFL declined to comment for this story, but league spokesman Greg Aiello emphasized in an email that the retirement board is independent, and that its decisions “are not made by the NFL or by the NFL Players Association.”
The seven-member NFL retirement board is composed of three owner representatives, three player representatives, and a non-voting representative of the NFL commissioner. Among its duties is deciding individual disability claims.
The NFL, which has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, in recent years has denied that it concealed information about the risks of chronic brain injury and says it has updated its policies as concussion research has evolved over the past two decades.
Yet in a series of scientific papers from 2003 to 2009, members of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee wrote that “no NFL player” had experienced chronic brain damage from repeated concussions. The committee, first formed in 1994, asserted that NFL players were different than boxers, whose susceptibility to brain injuries caused by the sport has been documented since the 1920s.
“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis,” members of the NFL committee wrote in a December 2005 paper in Neurosurgery, the official journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.
However, board documents obtained by Outside the Lines and FRONTLINE show that the NFL retirement board determined in 1999 that repeated blows to the head had left Webster, who spent most of his 17-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, “totally and permanently” disabled. The board based its finding on the diagnoses of five doctors, including a Cleveland neurologist hired by the board to examine the player. The doctors described Webster as “childlike” and showing signs of dementia.
“The Retirement Board determined that Mr. Webster’s disability arose while he was an Active Player,” wrote Sarah E. Gaunt, director of the NFL’s retirement plan, in a May 8, 2000 letter to Fitzsimmons. The medical reports, she wrote, “indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs.”
The board granted “total and permanent” disability benefits to two other players — one in 1996 (pdf) — who claimed their mental impairment stemmed from “repetitive trauma to the head or brain from League football activities,” according to documents provided by the NFL board as part of a 2004 lawsuit seeking additional compensation for Webster’s family. The board redacted the players’ names; the documents were stamped “confidential.”
Interviews and documents from additional cases suggest that other retired players also received long-term disability benefits for brain injuries related to football, but ESPN and PBS could not verify those cases.
Webster died at age 50 in 2002. After his death, he was the first NFL player to be diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has since been found in more than a dozen deceased NFL players.
The league first acknowledged in December 2009 that repeated concussions could lead to long-term mental impairment.
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