For years, the NFL’s stance was that there was no substantive link between concussions suffered playing football and long-term brain damage.
But documents uncovered by ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada in conjunction with PBS’s Frontline show that the league’s retirement board paid at least $2 million in disability benefits to players including former Steelers center Mike Webster upon the conclusion that football was the cause of their injuries.
The West Virginia lawyer who represented Webster called the decision “the proverbial smoking gun,” which could be used against the league by the nearly 4,000 players who have filed concussion lawsuits.
“It’s pretty devastating evidence,” said Bob Fitzsimmons, the co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute. “If the NFL takes the position that they didn’t know or weren’t armed with evidence that concussions can cause total disability — permanent disability, permanent brain injury — in 1999, that evidence trumps anything they say.”
The league declined comment for the story, but league spokesman Greg Aiello made clear the retirement board is independent, and that its rulings “are not made by the NFL or by the NFL Players Association.”
A decade ago, the league’s stance was firm, as from 2003 to 2009, the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee wrote that “no NFL player” experienced chronic brain damage from concussions.
“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis,” members of the league’s committee wrote in a December 2005 paper in the medical journal Neurosurgery.
But the documents uncovered by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada showed that in 1999, the retirement board ruled that repeated shots to the head left Webster “totally and permanently” disabled, showing signs of dementia then.
“The Retirement Board determined that Mr. Webster’s disability arose while he was an Active Player,” wrote Sarah E. Gaunt, director of the NFL’s retirement plan, in a May 8, 2000 letter to Fitzsimmons. The medical reports, she wrote, “indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs.”
Two other players, whose names were redacted from the record, were also paid benefits based on “repetitive trauma to the head or brain from League football activities.”
This report will certainly be seized by the concussion plaintiffs, and more will likely line up behind them.