Former NFL stars remain concerned about effects of head injuries
CLEVELAND — Earl Campbell has spent years in a wheelchair, unable to rely upon the legs that once carried him farther and faster than all but a few other athletes on the planet.
Other players from the NFL's not-so-distant past consider the former Houston Oilers running back to be one of the lucky ones.
They're the ones dealing with severe memory loss, headaches and other head-related trauma that can occur after a decade or more of absorbing car crash-type impacts multiple times weekly for a decade or more.
As 100 Pro Football Hall of Fame members gathered in Cleveland this month, ostensibly to talk about all that's good in the game, the conversation couldn't help but turn to all that is bad.
One by one, the men wearing the Hall of Fame's distinctive yellow blazers ticked off the names of former players such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, who paid the ultimate price for playing pro football at an elite level.
“Guys gave up their lives (to play the game),” former Steelers quarterback Len Dawson said.
Even as they greeted each other warmly, retelling tales of star players and big games of a bygone era, some of the 100 are among the 4,566 players who filed a concussions lawsuit against the NFL. They're seeking help dealing with the aftereffects — severe and life-changing in many cases — of absorbing season after season's worth of severe blows to the head.
Or the type of punishment that ultimately helped kill Webster, Seau and Duerson.
“When some of these guys are getting (older), I think it affects them a whole lot more then it does in the early years,” said Dawson, the longtime Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback. “We've seen examples of guys who have given up their life because of concussions.
“You talk to some of the guys who are here, the old-timers, and there used to be a saying (about injuries): ‘Put a piece of tape on it, and you're ready to go.' ”
Of course, many weren't ready to go at all, re-entering games not long after a damaging blow left them unconscious. Now, many are suffering for that machismo — a price that even a federal court is having difficulty calculating.
“I've seen guys who went through concussions, and if they could remember the time or day or the snap count, then you went back in,” former Vikings guard Randall McDaniel said. “That mentality is what all athletes have. You want to play. You don't want to leave the field. You don't want to leave your buddies out there. You feel like you're not doing your job, so you go back.”
For example, former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, who is being treated for brain trauma, contends he was let go as the Browns' preseason TV analyst because of slurred speech resulting from his estimated dozen concussions. The TV station that carries the games contends that is not true.
Many of the Hall of Fame players only wish they could go back and play again, knowing what they know now about the dangers of concussions.
“It's concerning,” Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders said. “We're learning more and more every day, and the whole area is evolving.”
The players also want to be told what the NFL knew then about the long-term effects of concussions and other head injuries.
They might find out soon.
Although the NFL agreed last year to settle the players' lawsuit for $765 million, Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody in Philadelphia hasn't approved the settlement, saying she fears the amount is too low to cover 20,000 NFL retirees for 65 years.
Sanders, for example, gave up a chance to break the NFL's all-time rushing record when he retired at age 30 in 1998, yet he said, “I played 10 seasons, and there's tons of risks in playing that long.”
Also, seven former NFL players, a group that reportedly includes former Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca and special teams player Sean Morey, filed a motion to intervene in the case, arguing that some retired players would get nothing for their nagging health problems.
Their concern: Most of the money in the proposed settlement would compensate only the former players with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and advanced dementia. As much as $4 million could be paid for deaths linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the severe condition Webster was the first to be diagnosed with.
It is uncertain what will happen if Brody decides not to authorize the settlement.
Amid the mounting uncertainty about how the concussions lawsuit will be resolved, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri ruled that a similar case brought by former wide receiver Roy Green and other former members of the Arizona Cardinals can proceed in a Missouri state court.
When and if it does, the NFL might be forced to reveal in the discovery process what and when it knew about the long-term risks of concussions.
Paul D. Anderson, a lawyer and the founder of NFLConcussionLitigation.com, said: “We are one step closer to obtaining justice for players that are suffering from cognitive injuries due to the ongoing cover-up by the NFL and its member clubs. The (District) Court determined that professional sports teams are not immune from liability.”
No doubt the NFL is fearful that if the $765 million concussion settlement isn't approved, its ultimate cost won't be in the hundreds of millions of dollars but rather in the billions.
“The league is taking it seriously because there is a lot of money involved, and it should,” Dawson said.
As the effects of concussions are being studied at all levels of football, the White House will hold a summit on youth sports and concussions May 29 to raise awareness of head injuries among very young sports participants.
“They're moving in the right direction, but there's still more to be done,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel also hopes current NFL players pay attention to the physical plights of some of football's long-ago participants, even though he realizes they're probably not.
“Now, maybe, you need someone to speak for you on your behalf. Trainers, team doctors, even (other) players on the field should say, ‘Hey, he's not right. He should be out of the game,' ” McDaniel said. “Back in the day, I thought they were (looking out for us), but in hindsight, no, they could have done a lot more for us.
“You have to be an advocate for yourself, too. You've got to know when you really can be out there,” he said. “Sometimes, you've got to think about the future, what's down the road for you. Football is just a small part of your life. It's not everything. You've got to think about later in life and taking care of you and your family.”
Especially when the players, it seems, still don't know exactly who to trust.