In late August, the NFL announced a 765 million dollar concussion settlement between itself and thousands of former NFL players. In the eyes of many sports commentators, the timing seemed somewhat suspicious; the league had managed to buy silence on the concussion issue only days before the kickoff of the 2013-2014 season. At second glance, however, the NFL settlement appears to be a “canary in the coal mine” rather than the end of the story.
How will the distribution work? First off, the money will be paid out over sixteen or so years of monitoring. Second, the NFL likely is not paying all of this out of their own coffers. Our hunch is that the workers’ compensation and/or General Liability carriers are paying all of it, or at least a portion – and if they aren’t, lawsuits over those questions should be just around the corner. Third, depending on how the money is accounted for now, the public number released is likely only an estimate of what the treatments/monitoring will cost. An actuary would have to tell us what the odds are of an aging football population actually collecting these funds (hint: if they are really that hurt, not all of them will live as long as the general populace, despite their athletic abilities).
None of this is to meant to dis the plaintiffs’ lawyers, owners, insurers, reinsurers or anyone affiliated with the lawsuit. It may very well be a good solution to a difficult set of problems: proving individual cases (particularly causation), the desire for finality, the difficult public relations issues that the NFL would face even if it won. In other words, this is why most cases settle.
Meanwhile, while the lawsuit may be over, the media coverage and public health impact of the concussion issue are just getting started. This month, PBS’s Frontline is airing a two-part documentary entitled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” which explores the issue through interviews with former players and medical professionals alike. One of the most terrifying revelations in the documentary is that long-term brain injuries caused by football do not require a long career, or even severe trauma, to have devastating consequences.
We were particularly struck by the film’s mention of Owen Thomas, a 21-year old University of Pennsylvania football player who hung himself in his apartment at the peak of his collegiate career. Bewildered and sorrowful whispers traveled across the campus upon the news of his death; here was a young man who had never been diagnosed with a concussion, who, by all accounts, was full of joy and promise. Why would he commit suicide? As the documentary reveals, subsequent tests on Thomas’s brain revealed that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the same disease suspected of driving NFL players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau to take their lives.
As Thomas’s story and others like it raise awareness of brain injuries at the collegiate level, legislatures across the country have taken action to protect high school students from a similar fate. Indeed, as of 2013, only Mississippi lacks some form of concussion treatment law for high school students.
For example, in Illinois, high school coaches are now required by state law to take any athlete suspected of suffering a concussion off of the field. Similar laws in Texas and Michigan go a step further, requiring the injured student to receive written clearance from a health professional before they can return to the team. Additionally, the Texas law allows either the student’s parent or the team’s medical doctor to overrule coaches in determining whether the player should play. There is federal action on the horizon as well – the U.S. Congress is considering their own bill, entitled the “Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act.” If adopted, the legislation would require every public school district in the country to develop guidelines and procedures for the treatment of concussions.
Will these laws make a difference? They may be a case of too little, too late – a player may be assured of attention after they’ve been hurt, but horrific injuries will still occur in the first place. For the families of Owen Thomas and others like him, that can only be cold comfort.