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Jack Sisson's TBI Blog

A hug is duct tape for the soul.


From Bloomberg Businessweek: 1994, SI again sounded the alarm about “disturbing statistical and anecdotal evidence that concussions are the silent epidemic of football.”

When Gene Locks led Princeton against Columbia on Oct. 7, 1957, it took the Tigers quarterback only a few plays to discover “that the middle of the Columbia line was paper thin,” according to the Daily Princetonian. In the Tigers’ single-wing offense, Locks served as a blocker, leaving “gaping holes” in Columbia’s defense on the way to a 47-6 wipeout.

Fifty-six years later, a grayer, wider Locks sits in his Philadelphia law office behind piles of client files. Black-and-white gridiron photos of his svelte younger self look down from a shelf. In the 1970s he brought some of the first lawsuits on behalf of pipe fitters exposed to asbestos insulation. His firm eventually represented more than 16,000 asbestos clients in 20 states. In the late 1990s he helped lead the Fen-Phen diet drug litigation, which culminated in a $6 billion settlement. Now 75, Locks has earned a fortune in fees. In 2011 he had planned to spend more time with his grandchildren. “Then these concussion cases started coming in,” he says. “I remember what it’s like to get your bell rung.”

Even as an expected 110 million Americans take to their couches for the 47th Super Bowl on Feb. 3, Locks is waging a legal battle that represents the most serious threat to the viability of big-time football since an outbreak of fatal skull fractures back in the leather-helmet days. Locks and a group of allied plaintiffs’ lawyers are suing the National Football League on behalf of more than 4,000 former players and their wives who accuse the $9.5 billion-a-year business of covering up life-altering brain injuries.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its inherent brutality, football remains America’s most popular sport by far. Not only is the NFL the country’s single most lucrative sports enterprise, the league and its 32 teams also provide an atrophying television industry with its most profitable programming and an ideal vehicle for selling cars, beer, and erectile-dysfunction remedies. (The teams evenly share broadcast and licensing revenue. Ticket sales are split in a manner favoring home teams.)

This pecuniary feast is what makes the NFL so attractive to legal predators like Locks, although he and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers say they have no interest in putting the NFL out of business. “I love football,” Locks says. “No attorney ever said, ‘I love asbestos.’ ” So there’s reason to believe the ex-players’ lawsuit could produce a reasonable settlement.

And yet the litigation could still metastasize and become life-threatening to the game if the NFL chooses to draw out the court fight rather than seek a swift resolution. A protracted battle could provide the plaintiffs’ lawyers with an opportunity to reveal sordid details about a period during which they allege the NFL intentionally obfuscated evidence of the long-term brain damage suffered by its willing gladiators.

If this is true, and if the ugly particulars are played out in depositions, internal documents, and court testimony, such a legacy could alienate fans already uneasy about the suicides of former players such as Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, and Junior Seau, all of whom suffered from neurodegenerative brain disease linked to concussions.

“I’m a big football fan,” President Obama told the New Republic in an interview, “but I have to tell you, if I had a son I’d have to think long and hard before I’d let him play football.” Obama, who roots for the Chicago Bears, predicted that “those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”

Beyond the present litigation, the NFL faces a more ominous longer-term question. New research suggests the peril players face may not be limited to car wreck hits. It may extend to the relentless, day-in-and-day-out collisions that are the essence of the game. If science one day determines that merely playing serious tackle football substantially increases the danger of debilitating brain disease—as smoking cigarettes makes lung cancer much more likely—it’s conceivable that the NFL could go the way of professional boxing.

In 1903, before the NFL existed, the New York Times compared college football, then the top of the line, to “mayhem and homicide.” The following year, 18 campus players died from head injuries. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned college representatives to the White House to demand reform; rules began to change. Introducing the forward pass and the 10-yard first down led to a more fluid, less dangerous contest. Over time, protective equipment improved.
Football remained savage, though, and from time to time honest observers wondered aloud whether the entertainment was worth all the human wreckage. In 1978, Sports Illustrated warned: “As football injuries mount, lawsuits increase, and insurance rates soar, the game is headed toward a crisis.” Sixteen years later, in 1994, SI again sounded the alarm about “disturbing statistical and anecdotal evidence that concussions are the silent epidemic of football.” Head injury has never been a secret to anyone who played, or even closely watched, the game. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach retired after suffering 20 concussions, the SI piece said. Ex-Philadelphia Eagles passer Ron Jaworski counted 30.
The NFL finally responded in 1994 by forming the oddly named Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBI) to study the issue. For years, though, NFL Films continued to glamorize head-banging hits in videos such as Moment of Impact (2007). “Suddenly you’re down, and you’re looking through your helmet’s ear hole,” the DVD’s ad copy reads. “Pain? That’s for tomorrow morning.” (NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy calls the promotional language “a mistake.”)
The MTBI, chaired by a rheumatologist who was not a recognized authority on head injury, published a series of research papers that on the whole minimized the long-term dangers of head injury. The league’s complacency was captured in a pamphlet provided to players in 2007: “Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly. It is important to understand that there is no magic number for how many concussions is too many.”
Having punted on the brain injury issue, the NFL seemed to hope it would go away, but it didn’t. To a surprising degree, that was because of one college-player-turned-activist.
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