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September 7, 2012

Tackling traumatic brain injuries in the courtroom

by: Anne McGinness Kearse

Wednesday’s game between the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl Champion, and the Dallas Cowboys kicked off the 93rd season of the National Football League.

While bloggers and pundits are focused on the buzz of the new season, from the referee lock-out to preliminary Super Bowl predictions, the continuing threat of traumatic brain injuries to NFL players is not far removed from the headlines.

The NFL is beginning its season faced with hundreds of lawsuits involving traumatic brain injuries sustained by players during football practices and games. These cases have been consolidated before a single federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in something known as an MDL (multidistrict litigation).

An important issue in this litigation is the short and long-term effects of concussive brain injuries. Research has shown that it's not just the big hits that cause problems. Studies show that sub-concussive forces, repeated impacts and repetitive head trauma may also lead to degenerative brain disease.

Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries (MTBI), or concussions, are serious injuries that can permanently damage the brain, impair thinking ability and alter memory and judgment. Medical data has, for years, linked concussions directly to dementia and long-term cognitive impairment. In 2000, a study of 1,090 former NFL players found that more than 60 percent had at least one concussion during their careers, and 26 percent had sustained three or more.

Neurologists state that, once a person suffers from a concussion, he or she is four times more likely to sustain a second one. After several concussions, it takes less of a blow to cause an injury, and more recovery time is required.

In addition, a study of retired NFL players at the Institute for Social Research found that former NFL players who are more than 50-years-old are five times more likely to develop dementia than the national average for men in that age group. But they’re football players—didn’t they know they could be at risk for getting injured? Evidence shows that the NFL has had access to medical evidence linking concussions to long-term brain damage for decades. It is alleged that the NFL failed to inform its players of the serious risks associated with concussions and failed to take effective action to minimize those risks and protect the players’ short-term and long-term health.

I am honored to be one of the attorneys litigating these cases. Through this litigation, I hope the players are able to receive treatment and future medical attention for neurological damage and recover their medical expenses. I also hope this litigation promotes change to the NFL and causes the many other football organizations and equipment manufacturers that look to the NFL for guidance to advocate for safer play.

I am encouraged after reading about new compact headgear being developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As recently reported by The New York Times, this headgear may help reduce the risk of future traumatic football brain injuries by detecting changes in a player’s brain activity shortly after he experiences a traumatic collision in the field of play. As this technology develops, we might be able to spot immediate changes in brain behavior on the field, allowing players to be able to do something they haven’t been able to do before—identify the potentially damaging hits, not just the hard ones, that could result in life-altering damage if ignored.

Changes in technology and bringing to light decades of unshared medical knowledge are crucial to ensuring the safety of the NFL’s most valuable assets: its players. By keeping the stars on the field from seeing proverbial stars, fans should be able to enjoy not only this season but also seasons to come.

So this season I will still cheer on my favorite team, even though my heart will stop each time a player takes a hit—but what can I say, that’s just the mother and lawyer in me.

Study: Players prone to brain disease