Not only did the National Football League spend years withholding critical information about head injuries from its players, the league's primary helmet supplier knowingly produced and equipped players with a defective product, two former Chargers players aim to prove in a lawsuit filed in late February.
James "Jim" Allison played for the American Football League's Chargers from 1965 to 1968 (the AFL was absorbed by the NFL in 1970). Burt Grossman played for the Chargers from 1989 until 1993; he ended his career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994.
Despite the fact that the league launched its "Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee" in 1994, the players, along with Allison's wife (also named as a plaintiff), allege that the NFL knew of the dangers presented by head injuries long before. The group points to medical studies dating back to the 1920s examining the effects of multiple concussions on professional boxers and lists a handful of rules changes beginning in 1956 that attempted to incrementally address protection for players' heads and necks.
Further, they allege that the committee itself was a sham.
"Although the NFL created [the committee] purportedly to investigate the effect of concussions on its players, its actual purpose was to attempt to discredit legitimate research on brain injuries and continue to push the NFL's party line: Concussions and other repeated head trauma are not dangerous," states the complaint, further accusing the league of conducting "a longstanding and comprehensive plan to mislead its players and the general public."
Allison and Grossman say that they "would regularly lose consciousness during games" but were ordered to continue play after team doctors "repeatedly mis-diagnosed cognitive injuries so they would be cleared to return to the field."
Going beyond the league, the plaintiffs are also including helmet manufacturer Riddell and parent company Easton-Bell in the suit.
"At the time the helmets were designed, manufactured, sold, and distributed by [Riddell], the helmets were defective in their manufacturing and unreasonably dangerous and unsafe for their intended purpose," reads the lawsuit. The players claim that the helmets as designed were ineffective in preventing serious trauma such as brain injury and that proper testing would have shown this to be the case before they were issued to players who placed their trust in the NFL and Riddell that the league and gear supplier were taking effective measures to ensure their safety.
The plaintiffs are demanding a jury trial and seek damages for medical care and loss of income, though a trial date is unlikely soon — a pre-trial case-management conference for the parties to meet and discuss their claims isn't scheduled until the end of October.
In January, a judge threw out a proposed settlement between the NFL and more than 4800 former players concerning head injuries that was reached in August 2013, opining that the $765 million the league agreed to set aside might not be enough to provide adequate treatment and compensation for the injured players.
Total NFL revenues in recent years have topped $9 billion annually, and league head Roger Goodell is on record projecting annual revenues of more than $25 billion within the next 15 years.