Last month, five former players for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs sued the team, claiming that they are now suffering from brain injuries resulting from repeated concussions they suffered during their playing careers, which the team knew about but failed to warn them about. Alexander Cooper, Christopher Martin, Joseph Phillips, Leonard Griffin and Kevin Porter played all or parts of their careers between August of 1987 and March of 1993, when there was no collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players union.
This past August, the NFL purportedly worked out a settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by 4,500 former players and their families who alleged that the league failed to disclose the long term effects of head trauma to players, including memory loss, dementia, vision disturbance, headaches, behavioral problems, depression and difficulty with activities of daily living. Clearly the NFL was anxious to settle the case, as it has been reported that the league has earnings of approximately 10 billion annually, and by settling the cases now, the NFL could buy peace with its former players, avoid some damaging disclosures as to its knowledge of the dangers players faced from repeated head blows, and show the fans that this multibillion dollar enterprise is concerned about the welfare of its’ employees.
I noted that the settlement is “purported” (as opposed to finalized) because in the last week, a federal judge in the 3rd District of Pennsylvania, the Hon. Anita Brody, determined that the settlement amount was inadequate, particularly in light of the fact that there are a total of 18,000 current or former players that could have potential claims effected by the settlement in the future. Thus, Judge Brody instructed league officials, the players union and attorneys representing both sides to provide hard evidence as to how the settlement amount of $765 million ($675 million allocated to compensation, $75 million for testing and ongoing treatment, and $15 million for research) would sufficiently cover all of the costs involved.
Cooper, Griffin, Martin, Phillips and Porter hope to establish a right to have their cases heard by an arbitrator under the collective bargaining, not in existence when they played. The case was filed in Circuit Court in Jackson County, Mississippi, and is the first case by former players against a specific team.
Last month, things became even more complicated both for the Kansas City Chiefs, and more importantly, the NFL. Cheryl Shepherd, the mother of Jovan Belcher, the late Kansas City Chiefs linebacker who killed his baby’s mother Kasandra Perkins and then 2 days later, on December 3, 2012, shot and killed himself in front of then head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli, brought suit against the team for her son’s wrongful death. Ms. Shepherd was given permission by a local Court to exhume Mr. Belcher’s body so that his brain could be examined for signs of CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which she alleges could have been due to repeated concussions, and possibly the reason for his depression, mood swings and ultimately the horrific events of December 1 and 3, 2012.
This a truly a crossroads for many ex-players and the NFL. First, the players who have signed on to the settlement agreement must convince a federal judge that the settlement amount is sufficient, not just for the present players seeking treatment, testing and compensation, but for the future claimants that will be seeking the same. From the players point of view, one of the benefits of the settlement, even if possibly inadequate, is not having to prove causation, i.e., that all of the physical, mental and emotional problems they are experiencing are caused by having played professional football and suffering repeated head trauma.
For example, in the case of Jovan Belcher, it is now being reported that he also had some behavioral and violence issues while at the University of Maine, which caused him to put his hand through a window after a dispute with a girlfriend. This is only a small example of a much larger issue, that If players decide to opt out of the settlement, their medical histories, playing careers in high school and college, and other information will also be taken into account by juries, and in some cases, this may lead to a unsolved question as to whether and when the brain injuries were suffered. If the evidence is equivocal, players who have rejected the settlement might go to Court and lose their cases.
Without doubt, the NFL wants no part of a public disclosure of how much the league knew of the dangers of repeated blows to the head, the protocol for concussions, and the causation of CTE. Thus, working out a deal, albeit for an amount greater than the present 760 million, seems to be the better approach for both sides.