Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Apr 10, 2013

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The coalition of former NFL players accusing the NFL of glorifying violence at the expense of player safety had their day in court this week when a Federal judge in Philadelphia heard arguments in the lawsuit filed against the league.  Ex-players who suffer lingering physical and mental injuries as a result of their playing days sued the NFL, accusing the league of not only tacitly encouraging violence, but concealing evidence about the dangers of concussions for several years.

Former Players Sue the NFL

The litigation, joined by 4,200 of the league’s 12,000 former players, could result in billions of dollars in damages against the NFL if successful.  Citing lasting effects including dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease, the lawsuit claims that the NFL culture forced them to the field too soon after concussion injuries, and blame the league for failing to implement sufficient rules ensuring player safety.

In the wake of high profile former player suicides, including Junior Seau’s, momentum for the lawsuit has built to its recent culmination in federal court.  A handful of players appeared alongside their lawyer in the courtroom for the 40-minute hearing, several of whom suffer serious ailments as a result of their time in the NFL.  Should the lawsuit be successful, former players and their families will likely receive a significant payout to compensate for the ongoing injuries they suffer.

NFL Legal Response

In response to the allegations, the NFL is attempting to redirect responsibility to the players union, the teams, and the players themselves.  Arguing that club doctors had better access to players during the game, and thus were in a better position to monitor player health in the critical moments, the NFL claims that it is not responsible for encouraging players to place their health at risk or failing to ensure that injured players did not take the field.  Supporting this argument by citing the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the league, NFL attorney Paul Clement, claims that the players are contractually precluded from holding the NFL responsible instead of their union and their teams.

Players’ attorney David Frederick responded to this argument by claiming the collective bargaining agreement is silent on the subject of head injuries, and the lawsuit is not prevented by the collective bargaining agreement.  During the hearing, Judge Anita Brody highlighted this issue, and indicated that determining what the collective bargaining agreement covers could turn the decision. 

NFL Focusing on Player Safety

As rumors of the lawsuit have developed into reality over the last several years, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has responded to player concerns and media outcry for increased safety by ratcheting up protective regulations.  From increased penalties for hits to the head, to severe penalties against teams encouraging violent hits, to the recent rule preventing ball carriers from lowering their head for contact in the open field, Goodell has established a regime dedicated to reducing the violence of the game.  Although it is possible the commissioner’s motives are driven by the threat of lawsuits rather than a genuine interest in player safety, the campaign to raise awareness and protect players has changed the game forever.

While the motivation for Goodell’s initiatives will not have an effect on the present lawsuit, the litigation’s impact on the game will be felt by the NFL regardless of the outcome.  The troubling dangers of playing in the NFL has become a primary concern for the league, and Judge Brody’s decision, which is not expected for several months, has the potential to help change the course of the NFL’s future.   If the league, rather than players or teams, is legally liable for the lasting effects of head injuries, it is possible that an already aggressive approach to player safety could escalate to fundamentally changing the way the game is played.