It may not be what you think.
It’s the largest lawsuit in the history of professional sports. More than 2,000 former NFL players—including Hall of Famers and household names like Art Monk and Jim McMahon—are suing the most profitable sports league on the planet. They are claiming that the league had direct knowledge that repeated head trauma could lead to everything from Alzheimers to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and that the league hid this knowledge from players.
Kevin Turner is one of those players. A former running back with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, Turner has since been diagnosed with ALS. “The NFL must open its eyes to the consequences of its actions,” he said after the lawsuit was filed. “The NFL has the power not only to give former players the care they deserve, but also to ensure that future generations of football players do not suffer the way that many in my generation have.”
I’ve interviewed Turner in person, and it’s harrowing to see someone who still has the build of a football player but without the motor functions to open and pour a bottle of water. These kinds of stories are legion, and the NFL recognizes this for the threat this is.
Even if the league gets the suit dismissed, it faces the kind of PR debacle that rips away the carefully groomed fiction that this is “family friendly” entertainment.
The league’s response to the suit thus far has been to issue one terse comment to the media. “The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so,” it said. “Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s many actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
The players have a steep hill to climb in proving their claims. They are going to need to show that the NFL and team doctors, as in the famous lawsuits against “big tobacco,” had the medical data on brain trauma and chose to disregard it because it would affect the bottom line.
Without a whistleblower, such as a former team doctor with a guilty conscience, coming forward, that will be very difficult to prove.
But this is far more of a public relations war than a war about the medical facts. The lawsuit presents the possibility of a media spectacle where 2,000 players testify about how crippling their lives have become and point their finger directly at the National Football League.
The NFL’s problem is that it’s near impossible to find a player, past or present, who would defend the ethics of the league when it comes to players’ health. Even today, as the NFL bends over backward to show the public how concerned it is about head trauma, players think the league’s actions speak louder than words.
Currently NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners are still agitating to expand the season from sixteen to eighteen games. That means more profit—and more potential for injury.
This off-season they “settled” their contract dispute with the referees’ union by locking them out and hiring scab referees from the ranks of small-time colleges. Pro referees are now trained to identify concussion symptoms and get players out of games. Scab referees are seen by players as dangerous to their health.
In the end, the public will have to choose up sides. Will our football-obsessed citizenry sympathize more with the players they’ve watched for years, or will they stand with owners and say, “It’s football. Players should have known the risk”?
To me, this is an easy one. The comments of one former player still ring in my ears: “I understand that anyone would expect to lose their knees or hips if they played football. But no one told me I could lose my mind. No one told me I might not remember the names of my kids.”
Dave Zirin is the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, “Edge of Sports Radio.” His newest book, in collaboration with John Carlos, is “The John Carlos Story,” from Haymarket Books. This article will run in the August issue of The Progressive.