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Op-ed: NFL lawsuit brings head injuries to light

Published November 9, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For many NFL players, recounting time spent on the football field brings back memories of great plays and hard-fought victories. For others, past glory days are hard to celebrate because of the toll the sport took on their bodies, with physically painful reminders daily.

From headaches to dizziness to cognitive dysfunction and memory loss, some NFL players regret powering through their playing years without knowing the full set of facts about how being tackled day after day resulted in head trauma. Approximately 4,500 of those players recently took their cases to court, suing the NFL for failing to disclose proper information about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma.

In August, the players won their cases, with the NFL agreeing to a $765 million settlement in the highly publicized lawsuit. The majority of the money will go to former players who have suffered effects of repetitive head injuries, and also to families of players who died and were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease sometimes found in people who suffered multiple concussions during their lifetime.

Compensation to former players will be determined based on age, present condition and the number of years they performed in the league. The fund is expected to cover ex-athletes' expenses up to age 65, while an additional $10 million from the settlement will be allocated to research.

Announcement of the settlement earlier this year caused a big stir and has been called by many a "landmark" in sports history. As football season swings into full gear this fall, many in the medical community are heralding the case as a major win for former NFL players.

First and foremost, the settlement will provide access to needed assessment, treatment and related medical services for former athletes. Had the case gone to trial, it was expected to drag out in years of litigation, delaying access to services and compensation, and likely significantly reducing the final compensation to players.

Second, it provides validation of their injuries and of the cognitive and emotional changes they have experienced. These former athletes, along with the millions of others who have sustained a mild traumatic brain injury, struggle with an "invisible injury."

When one has a broken leg, others see the injury and offer sympathy and understanding when a player is not able to run like he once could. But this isn't the case with an MTBI and most don't understand why someone isn't the person he used to be.

The players aren't the only group to win a victory in the case. Although the NFL must pay out $765 million, that amount is merely one-third of the initial $2 billion in damages the lawsuit asked for. And $765 million is just 10 percent of the estimated $10 billion in revenue the NFL draws in annually.

It is estimated that the cost of caring for someone with dementia ranges from $41,000 to $56,000 per year, although this figure can quickly extend to six figures as level of needed care increases. Whether the NFL's settlement will provide adequate compensation to all the affected former players is questionable.

The NFL has been merely reactive to the issue of concussions for decades, rather than proactive in protecting the health and well-being of its players. The settlement is a gesture to placate and is in no way a solution to the problem, yet it may have interesting implications for recruitment processes and our practice of luring young athletes into the profession with promises of fame and money at the expense of their own health.

Redefining informed consent in football, not just in the NFL but possibly at other levels, is on the horizon. The word is out √ā¬≠repetitive head trauma can lead to long-term effects on brain health.

The NFL can't hide this anymore.

Angela Eastvold, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Utah. Her experience evaluating retired NFL players has evolved into a desire to better understand the consequences of repetitive insults to the brain, leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.