Traumatic Brain Injury from Playing Football in the NFL

A fast-growing lawsuit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has been filed against the NFL by nearly 4,000 former football players. They claim that the NFL “propagated its own industry-funded and falsified research to support its position” that athletes cannot receive long-term brain damage from playing football. The league’s highest medical experts have for years denied the risk of long-term brain injury in their players, despite the fact that the NFL’s retirement board has awarded at least three former players disability benefits for brain damage.

Previously unavailable documents have been uncovered during an investigation by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and PBS’ “Frontline” that reveal specifics of a successful 1999 disability claim by Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. In this case, the board had determined that Webster, after a career spanning 17 years, had been “totally and permanently” disabled due to repeated blows to the head. The decision was made after examinations from five doctors who discovered signs of dementia.

In a letter written May 8, 2000, NFL retirement plan director Sarah E. Gaunt wrote, “The Retirement Board determined that Mr. Webster’s disability arose while he was an Active Player… [Medical Reports] indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs.”

Traumatic Brain Injury

After Webster’s death in 2002 at the age of 50, he was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has since been found in over a dozen other deceased NFL players. Dr. Edward L. Westbrook, who had been asked by the NFL board to examine several players for traumatic brain injury in the early 2000s, said he was “impressed and maybe horrified by… the degree of injury” in the players, which included Webster. Westbrook had no hesitations in naming football injuries as the cause of Webster’s illness.

Dr. Westbrook was one of the “neutral” physicians hired by the NFL board whose opinions are said to have a critical role in determining the outcome of disability claims by players. In 2005, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Webster’s estate’s lawsuit against the NFL retirement plan, saying, “In every such case in which the neutral physician offered a clear, conclusive assessment of the applicant’s disability, the board chose to follow the neutral recommendation.”
The NFL did not officially acknowledge that repeated concussions could lead to long-term mental damage until December 2009, which led Jason Luckasevic, a Pittsburgh attorney who represented some of the first players who sued the NFL over this issue, to say, “That’s completely fraudulent. You say these people have cognitive problems from playing football and award them benefits, and yet you lie and write studies telling the public that’s not the case. I don’t know that it gets more despicable than that.”

In an essay published in “Neurosurgery,” the official journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee wrote, “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis,” and added that “no NFL player” had experienced chronic brain damage from repeated head injuries.

This evidence could be damaging to the NFL’s motion to dismiss the Pennsylvania lawsuit, as their insistence that information about chronic brain damage has not been concealed and that their policies are being updated with the continuation of concussion research does not align with their actions in the late 1990s and 2000s. Webster and two other cases had been awarded disability benefits for “total and permanent” mental impairment due to football-related head injuries.

Nick Ortiz is an experienced disability lawyer who can assist you in filing a claim for Long Term Disability or Social Security disability benefits for brain trauma and other permanently disabling conditions. Call 850-308-7833 for more information.

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