On March 23rd, a group of 126 former professional football players led by former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Football League in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs allege that the NFL willfully hid information about the risks of repetitive traumatic brain injury from its players, many of whom now suffer brain damage, memory loss and other neurological disorders. According to the website NFL Concussion Litigation, Rypien v. NFL joins a list of more than fifty similar lawsuits filed since August 2011, including several other class actions. The federal cases are being consolidated in the Eastern District as In re: National Football League Players’ Concussion Injury Litigation for pretrial purposes.
And it is not just sports teams facing litigation. NFL Concussion Litigation also points to Enriquez v. Easton-Bell Sports & Riddell Sports Group, a consumer class action against the manufacturers of Revolution helmets. The plaintiffs allege that the helmets failed to deliver on the promise of added protection against head injury, as compared to other football helmets. The Revolution helmets have been worn by football players at the high school, college and professional level.
This wave of players’ lawsuits and other litigation has prompted speculation from commentators that the debate over head injuries in professional football will have an irreversible impact on the sport. Blogger Andrew Sullivan takes sides, comparing the situation to the tobacco industry: “So a lucrative industry knowingly destroys the health of the people it makes money off – and keeps the evidence hidden from them. Sound familiar?”
Last month, Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier discussed how the controversy, which extends beyond professional football into college and high school athletics, could potentially doom the sport:
The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits. Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away.
The key phrase though is “if ex-players start winning judgments.” Currently, the NFL has yet to lose a single case (one was voluntarily dismissed). And earlier this month NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sought to demonstrate the league’s commitment to player safety when he issued several large fines and suspended New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Peyton in response to findings that the team was offering “bounties” to players who injured their opponents.
Professional football is a multi-billion dollar sport with an enormous fan base, but the plaintiffs in these cases argue that they have science on their side. Whatever the future holds for the sport, the debate is sure to keep the lawyers busy.
Posted by Emily Fisher