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Former NFL Players Sue Over Concussions


Last week, a couple of weeks after Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy suffered a concussion from a helmet-to-helmet hit, the National Football League announced a new policy on concussions. McCoy was sent back in after sitting out two plays. And after the game, he experienced symptoms of a concussion and he hasn't played since.

Under the new policy, a certified athletic trainer will be at every game, up in a booth, where he can watch video replays and call down to the medical staffs of both teams. The trainer will not be able to order that a player be taken out of the game but he'll be able to inform and assist the teams' medical staffs.

In addition to the McCoy case, four retired NFL players recently sued the league in Florida, claiming long-term brain injuries have caused memory loss, headaches and sleeplessness. They claim the league committed fraud by not informing them of the risk they faced. And they joined dozens of other plaintiffs who've filed several similar lawsuits in various jurisdictions around the country.

Well, joining us to talk about these lawsuits and the issues they raise about concussions, is New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, who has done the breakthrough reporting on this story, documenting the health problems that former pro-football players experience.

Welcome to the program.

ALAN SCHWARZ: Well, thank you, Robert. It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: First, do former players who, after all, often made a very good living by banging into each other, honestly claim: I didn't know I was endangering my health in a dozen different ways by playing pro football?

SCHWARZ: Well, I think that really the question becomes - what did the league tell these the players? The National Football League claimed until the end of 2009 that there were no long-term consequences, or there was no evidence of that, which flew in the face of almost every other scientific finding; which opens up the question, you know, of whether these players were given appropriate medical advice from their employers.

SIEGEL: If these were, though, professional boxers who were suing their promoters, they might claim that if we wore helmets like the amateur boxers we might not be punch-drunk today. Is there anything that the NFL could do besides just saying if you get hurt you're out for three weeks or that? Is there any better rule that a limitation on rough play that could have imposed?

SCHWARZ: Oh, sure. I mean you could have a rule that you can't hit another guy in the head just because he's carrying the ball. Right now, you can only not hit somebody in the head if he is a defenseless receiver or a quarterback in the act of throwing. But if you're carrying the ball, you can just get crushed in the head. And I'll bet you 10 years from now you won't be able to do that.

SIEGEL: The sports law columnist for Sports Illustrated, Michael McCann, wrote recently that the league might claim - in addition to claiming that the players assumed the risk of themselves when they decided to play pro football - that a pro football player probably played, you know, a few years of college football, some years of high school football before that. How can they blame the NFL for something which might have been incurred before they turned pro?

SCHWARZ: Well, there's no question in that that is absolutely an issue, because the disease that is most often associated with concussions in the NFL is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It is a degenerative disease that can be incipient in people as young as 18. And so, they have found people who never played in the NFL who did have beginning signs of it. It is an open question.

SIEGEL: Absent the kind of rule changes or until the kind of rule changes that you've described - not hitting anybody in the head - would the presence of a trainer up in the booth who's looking at collisions and reviewing them in instant replay for his own edification, might that change anything that's happening on the field and injuries?

SCHWARZ: Well, presumably there will be a non-zero number of concussions that will be discovered because there's another pair of eyeballs looking for it. Last year, Stewart Bradley, a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, stumbled around basically punch-drunk and collapsed on the field and then was back in the game in three and a half minutes later because apparently the Eagles' training staff was too busy dealing with Kevin Kolb's possible concussion, and they didn't see it.

But I think that if there were a certified athletic trainer or otherwise knowledgeable person who would see these replays and say, hey, wait a minute. This guy just got clocked in the skull, we better darn well get him checked out. If the medical staff missed it, then it also puts the responsibility on the team's medical staff to actually do it. They can't claim, well, we didn't know.

SIEGEL: Alan Schwarz of The New York Times, thanks for talking with us.

SCHWARZ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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