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Concussion Litigation Forever Changes Sport of Football

December 13, 2017 Blog

By David S. Casey, Jr.

One of football’s greatest tragedies was the loss of Junior Seau, one of the greatest football players in the history of the NFL,
Learn More. Following his tragic death, when his condition was diagnosed as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy by three of the top neuro-pathologists in the United States, it changed football forever. Three independent neuro-pathologists, without knowing whose brain they were looking at and without knowing each other’s result, all diagnosed that Junior Seau had suffered from CTE. That sent a shockwave throughout the National Football League, college football, and high school football. It will forever alter the way in which people view the risks associated with head injuries in football.

After we proceeded forward in litigation against the NFL for the concussions and head injuries suffered by the players, including the action we brought on behalf of the family of Junior Seau, we began to see the enormous impact it had on a national level. This was brought home to me vividly in a public forum where I spoke in San Diego about head injuries and football. I appeared with a former Charger football player, as well as the person in charge of all high school sports for the CIF throughout California. We talked about the implication of CTE resulting from multiple mild head injuries often without any diagnosis from football. The head of the CIF stood up before the crowd. He stated that just a few years earlier, high school players would play football without any concern for the consequences of their having repeated hits to their heads. He noted that as long as they didn’t break a bone, they felt they were fine. If they got their “bell rung” numerous times in a game, they did not give it another thought. Likewise, parents of successful football players supported them playing football, even though they got knocked around and became dazed. The pride in their sons playing football and achieving wins was overwhelming. It did not dawn on the parents that the hitting they were going through might end up handicapping them later in life.

Finally, the head of the CIF noted that the coaches themselves had grown up in an era when football players would always “tough it through their injuries.” If they actually fractured a bone, that was one thing, but if they had bruises, twists that could be wrapped or if they had their “bell rung” they could return to play and keep on going. He then turned to me and said something that was unexpected. He thanked me and other attorneys like me who brought actions against the NFL. He said we highlighted the impact of these repeated hits on the head and the potential impact on the players. He said now if their bell was rung, they would be taken out of the game and allowed at least a week or two of recovery before playing again, unlike before when doctors would not do neurological evaluations if they hit their head. He said in high school sports you can only regulate so much. Education is what matters. The NFL litigation had now made parents aware that their children were at potential risk in playing football. The parents now watched their sons more carefully. If they saw evidence that their sons struck their heads, they would encourage them to step back from the game to recover. The players themselves, many of whom were used to taking numerous doses of Ibuprofen before playing games, now were approaching the games much more thoughtfully, realizing if they struck their head, they needed to let their coach and their parents know and allow themselves time to recover. Thirdly, the coaches themselves now changed in their perspective. Because of the cases that were brought, noted the head of the CIF, there was recognition that serious head injuries could come from “getting your bell rung.” In conclusion, he noted that millions of young people were being better protected because of the very litigation we had brought.

In our profession, it is an honor to represent individuals who received serious and catastrophic injuries and help them recover and go on to a new pathway in life. At the same time, to be able to impact thousands, if not millions, of young people with a greater awareness of the importance of their brain, their neurologic function, and the importance of protecting that very valuable asset is extremely gratifying to us in our profession. A famous legal scholar, Tom Lambert, once said, “It is far better to have a fence at the top of the cliff than an ambulance waiting below.” When we are able to take steps through litigation that increases awareness of a potential risk of paraplegia, quadriplegia, and brain injury from certain activities as lawyers, we have succeeded. Football is a sport that is here to stay, but now those playing this sport will better understand the risk involved. All of those involved, be it parents; young people or coaches will be taking more prudent steps to protect those who suit up and step foot on the grid iron.