Football is not your average contact sport. It’s impossible to deny that it is a dangerous game involving large, athletic players colliding into one another at high speeds. While the prevalence of helmets and pads may help mitigate some injuries, that doesn’t mean that the sport can’t still do extraordinary damage to brains and bodies. Most of us recognize this fact today, but unfortunately, it has taken far too long for the NFL, the medical community, and even football fans to fully recognize this fact.
Doctors have learned a great deal about concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain condition believed to be caused by repeated hits to the head, ever since the first NFL player was diagnosed with CTE in the early 2000s. Since then, concern has only grown, as well over 100 former NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE postmortem.
Before we can understand CTE, we must also understand concussions.
The human brain is the most complicated and powerful organ on planet Earth, and there are still many things we don’t understand or that are left to be discovered about how the brain works. What we do know, however, is the when a person hits their head hard, the brain can bounce and twist in the skull, and it is this rapid motion that causes a brain injury known as a concussion.
During this impact, neurons can be stretched and damaged, and someone with a concussion may report “seeing stars,” becoming disoriented, losing consciousness, and can suffer from sluggish or confused thoughts for weeks or even months.
Every Sunday during football season, heads and bodies are smashed together violently, and while the NFL has implemented rule changes to help reduce concussions, there are still many instances in any given season. Indeed, the 2017 football season saw more NFL players suffering concussions than in each of the past five years, with a total of 281 reported concussions during regular and pre-season play.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is not about single concussions, but is the result of repeated concussions, or even just blows to the head that are not as severe, which can result in structural changes to the brain. Evidence continues to mount that repeated head blows, such as those suffered by NFL players, are a key contributor to the disease.
More specifically, brains with CTE accumulate a protein called tau, which is believed to be dislodged from brain fibers during an injury, which then clumps together in the tissues of the brain and interrupts the normal flow of information.
The symptoms of CTE come on slowly, over the course of 8 to 10 years, and only seem to grow worse over the decades. The spread of the tau protein can be seen in scans which initially show small areas pockmarked with tau and which can spread to surround whole brain structures.
The severity of CTE is rated in stages. Stage I symptoms include headaches, short-term memory loss, and inattention. By Stage IV, most subjects suffer from a profound loss of attention and concentration, language difficulties, aggressive tendencies, paranoia, depression, vertigo, changed and erratic behavior, and even escalated thoughts of suicide.
A number of former NFL players have committed suicide over the years, and it was only through a postmortem brain analysis that it was determined that they had CTE. A few of the most notable examples of these players include Junior Seau, and more recently, Aaron Hernandez.
CTE can only be conclusively diagnosed in autopsy, although progress has been made in diagnosing by MRI, so it is impossible to say how many current and former NFL players may be suffering from CTE.
During a recent study of 202 former football players whose brains were donated to science, including some of those who only played through to high school or college level football, an alarming 90 percent were diagnosed with CTE. The study showed that the severity of the CTE was linked with the length of play, suggesting that the effects of brain trauma or cumulative and the weekly battering that NFL players suffer dramatically increases their odds of developing CTE.
The Role of the NFL
While CTE can be developed by players from their days in high school and college, the most severe cases have been seen in those who go on to play professionally for a number of years. The NFL wouldn’t even acknowledge the concussion problem until 2009, as they had long downplayed or denied the link between concussions and cognitive decline in retired players.
In 2011, as more became known about concussions and CTE, the first lawsuit was filed by former players against the NFL which alleged that the League “was aware of the evidence and the risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries virtually at the inception, but deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information from the Plaintiffs and all others who participated in organized football at all levels.”
By August 2012, the number of players who had filed suit against their former employer had swelled to more than 3,400. As the claims continued to mount, the NFL eventually reached a settlement which would contribute an estimated $1 billion to provide medical help to former players suffering from a number of different cognitive impairments.
The concussion-related conditions that are specifically noted in the settlement are: ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s Disease, early dementia (Level 1.5), moderate dementia (Level 2), Parkinson’s Disease, CTE, and death. Each cognitive impairment has an associated maximum award. For instance, ALS is capped at $5 million, a post-mortem CTE is capped at $4 million, and a Level 1.5 neurocognitive impairment like early dementia is capped at $1.5 million.
These maximum amounts apply to players diagnosed with the impairments when they were under 45 years old and played actively for at least five seasons. Those diagnosed at an older age and/or with less active seasons of play will see the maximum cap drop.
The NFL concussion settlement has also recently become mired in more controversy as attorneys on behalf of the players argue that the NFL has compromised the integrity of the settlement and left many brain-injured players without compensation as the NFL repeatedly denies claims. The Boston Globe recently reported that of the 1,731 retired players who have submitted claims since the settlement process began a year ago, that only 350 former players have received initial approval for about $350 million in payments, but that of those, 200 players have yet to receive a check because of numerous delays, including appeals by the NFL. Another 214 claims have been denied outright, particularly those suffering from dementia, with approval rates of just .6 percent.
While the process is still in play, one thing is certain: this won’t be the last we hear about the problem of concussions and CTE in the NFL. The medical community is only truly beginning to understand the effects of CTE and concussions are still a routine part of the game in America’s most popular spectator sport.
Have you or a loved one suffered from brain damage, head trauma, concussions, or CTE due to playing professional football?
You may be entitled to compensation for your pain and medical costs following the NFL concussion settlement. The settlement is complex and contains many deadlines to qualify. Guidance by an experienced, professional law firm is essential to making sure you maximize the amount of money you may be entitled to within the strict deadlines imposed by the court.
The team at Fears Nachawati is here to help as you try to receive the compensation you deserve, just like any employee who has been injured on the job and suffered long-term medical consequences as a result. For your free, no obligation consultation please call please call (866) 705-7584 or visit the offices of Fears Nachawati located throughout the great state of Texas, including in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and San Antonio.