Utah congressional candidate Burgess Owens downplays head injuries he suffered in the NFL

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Burgess Owens, former NFL player and now 4th District GOP nominee for Congress, pictured near his home in Draper, Utah, July 3, 2020. In 2012, Owens joined a lawsuit against the NFL for not doing enough to protect himself and other players from concussions and head injuries he said he suffered repeatedly.

During the decade he spent in the NFL, Utah 4th Congressional District candidate Burgess Owens suffered “repeated and chronic” blows to the head that have put him at an “increased risk of latent brain disease” and led to memory loss and impulse control problems.

That’s according to a 2012 lawsuit Owens joined alongside dozens of other players who alleged the NFL had failed to protect them from concussions on the field.

The assertions in the court case raise questions about Owens’ physical and mental fitness for office as the Republican candidate attempts to unseat Rep. Ben McAdams, a moderate Democrat and freshman who won by fewer than 700 votes in 2018. This year’s contest is again expected to be among the most competitive congressional races in the nation.

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, the candidate’s campaign spokesman, Jesse Ranney, said that Owens was tested by the NFL in 2017 as part of the organization’s commitment to former players. And, despite Owens’ previous claims in court filings, “they found no cognitive or physical issues.”

“Anyone who doubts his cognitive ability is welcome to pick up one of his two bestselling books he’s written without a ghostwriter, read any number of his op-eds, or come to an event and chat with him,” Ranney said. “Burgess is a fighter. He has taken hits in the NFL, survived cancer, and all of the ups and downs that we all face with life. He now wants to take his lifetime of lessons learned and use his experience to serve the people of Utah.”

Owens was drafted by the New York Jets during the first round of the 1973 NFL draft and played 10 seasons as a safety, including as part of the 1980 Oakland Raiders team that won the Super Bowl. It’s unclear how many head injuries he suffered during that time and he declined to say in his response to The Tribune.

The 68-year-old conservative still sports his Super Bowl championship ring and has been outspoken about other issues related to the NFL. But he does not appear to have spoken widely about the injuries he had as a player.

The candidate briefly addressed his time with the Raiders during a recent appearance on “Triggered,” an online program hosted by Donald Trump Jr.

“In those days, it was all about intimidation,” Owens said. “You get a receiver come across the middle; I was a free safety. The goal was to intimidate. We’re paying the price now. That group that did that, we’re paying the price. So we’re being a lot smarter; we have to be because it is a collision sport and at some point we do have to pay the consequences of those collisions.”

(Ray Stubblebine | AP file photo) Los Angeles Raiders' Burgess Owens, second from left, stands behind NFLPA director Ed Garvey and other players at a press conference during a 1982 strike that shortened that year's NFL season. Owens' NFL career spanned from 1973-1982 playing for the New York Jets as well as the Raiders.

In the 2012 lawsuit, players alleged a variety of health impacts they attribute to their time as professional athletes, with symptoms ranging from headaches, dizziness and loss of memory to dementia, depression, suicidal thoughts, fatigue, sleep problems and irritability.

Research has linked repeated concussions to a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In a 2017 JAMA research study of 202 deceased former football players, more than 150 received a post-mortem diagnosis of CTE — including 110 of 111 NFL players.

The majority of those in the study who received the diagnosis, whether mild or severe, had behavioral or mood symptoms or both, as well as cognitive problems and signs of dementia, the research found.

But Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, a researcher at the University of Utah who’s looking into the impacts of head injuries on children and on players in the Pac-12, noted that brains are complex and that research on the impact of repetitive head injuries isn’t settled.

“There certainly is evidence that for some individuals, these recurrent concussions or recurrent [traumatic brain injuries] … seem to be associated with reduced cognitive ability,” she said. “But not for everybody.”

Some players recover and report no problems, she said. The impacts others describe — such as depression, memory loss or impulse control problems — could be linked to other factors, like age, lifestyle and the unique stressors professional athletes face, Yurgelun-Todd said. Essentially, just because there’s a correlation between cognitive impacts and brain injuries doesn’t mean there’s a causation.

But whatever the cause, Yurgelun-Todd said that voters in the state may be concerned to see a candidate previously claiming memory loss and impulsivity issues, no matter how “extremely hardworking and extremely compassionate and extremely good in terms of relating to people in Utah” he or she might be.

In his short form complaint, Owens said he has suffered from “symptoms of brain injury” caused by head impacts sustained during games or practices. The complaint states that his symptoms “arise from injuries that are latent and have developed and continue to develop over time.”

The former NFL player alleged injury to himself, as well as economic loss, loss of services and loss of the right of association and companionship with his then-wife, who was also a party to the lawsuit. She alleged a loss of “marital services,” companionship, affection or society, loss of support, and monetary losses in the form of unreimbursed costs she had to expend for her husband’s health and personal care.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, was one of more than 200 concussion-related court filings made around the country by about 4,500 players, according to USA Today. The disparate pieces of litigation were eventually compiled into a master complaint in Philadelphia, which was resolved with a $765 million settlement in 2013.

Owens said in a statement that he was “grateful for the increased education that came from this lawsuit and others similar.”

“Understanding the dangers of concussions has made me a much more empathetic person to those suffering and the nearly 50 million people in this country who suffer from mental illness,” he said. “I was lucky to not have dealt with near as many hits as others did, but unfortunately I have seen friends put in wheelchairs, struggle with depression and lose much of their functionality.”

These class-action lawsuits, his campaign said, were “imperative” in changing the NFL’s concussion protocol to protect players today.

It’s unclear how much money Owens received as part of the settlement, and he declined to say as part of his response to The Tribune.

Since retiring from the NFL, Owens has founded the Utah-based nonprofit organization Second Chance 4 Youth. He is also the author of the books “Liberalism or How to Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps” and “Why I Stand: From Freedom to the Killing Fields of Socialism,” and is a frequent Fox News commentator.

Owens announced in November that he would run for Congress on a four-point platform focused on education, charity, industry and families. In June, he won the Republican nomination in a four-way primary contest with 44% of the vote. He’ll go on to face McAdams in November.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown declined to comment for this story, saying he was “not familiar with that issue” — an indication that Owens had not informed the party of the cognitive issues he’s claimed resulted from his head injuries. Owens did not answer a question about whether he had discussed his condition with the party.

McAdams’ campaign also declined a request for comment.