It is not a coincidence that recent rules changes, studies on concussions and other player safety issues have taken center stage in the past few years. Earlier this month, ESPN's Lester Munson reported on the compelling case of Dave Duerson, the former Bears' defensive back who committed suicide at age 50. Duerson's family is suing the league for wrongful death in the belief that the suicide was a result of concussion-related brain damage. The suit charges that the NFL practiced "propaganda" for years, convincing players that concussions, or "getting your bell rung" were injuries of no consequence. But the Duerson case becomes the news peg to an even bigger issue.
Munson tallied up the number of lawsuits filed so far against the NFL that relate to injury or concussion in a direct way, and he came up with the astounding number of 659. And probably many more are on the way. Go to the internet and Google "NFL injuries" and you will come up with a handful of lawyers who solicit former NFL players to sue the league. With such URLs as http://www.playerinjury.com or www.nflheadinjurylawsuits.com and such tantalizing overtures as: "Get Legal Help For Your NFL Head Injury Concerns," "NFL Ignored Risks to Players," and "Holding the NFL accountable," many more former players undoubtedly will join this legal avalanche that Goodell knows is coming.
With so many plaintiffs claiming the same callous treatment, can a class action lawsuit be far away? The NFL does not want to become Big Tobacco, where a successful lawsuit can take down an industry. The NFL knows it is vulnerable to a single, titanic case filed on behalf of former players who maintain the league "actively deceived" players about the risks of head injuries, as one case in Philadelphia asserts.
Goodell did not create the problem, and, in fact, a case could be made that his recent actions demonstrate a sincere concern about the injury issue. Tightening rules on tackling, establishing guidelines when a player hit in the head can re-enter a game and, yes, playing hardball on blatant head-hunting all are efforts to mitigate the potential damage these lawsuits could inflict. Professional football is a violent, aggressive sport. No matter how many rules are changed, as long as football is played, players will suffer injuries and sometimes severely. But for the league to be perceived as a party that did nothing to stop the most blatant examples of the violence is the kind of scandal that can bring an industry to its knees.
Goodell had no choice but to levy the most severe discipline he could impose, which was made even worse by the Saints' alleged cover-up. Anything short of that would conflict with every other action he has taken in this area. Goodell has to be able to establish that the NFL is doing everything it can to address the problem of injuries and their long-term effects, because one day in a court room he will be asked to prove it. He can't change history, but he has no choice but to take measures that address the issue now, whether we like it or not.
by Jim Miller