This past summer, the National Football League endured a 136-day lockout, the longest work stoppage in league history. While current players spent the four month hiatus negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, retired players had their own beef with the NFL. Back in July, 75 former players sued the league and helmet manufacturer, Riddell, alleging that Riddell and the NFL concealed the harmful effects of concussions from coaches, players, and trainers. Anderson v. National Football League et al., No. BC46842 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 19, 2011). In addition, the players allege that football helmets were defectively designed and manufactured for attenuating the foreseeable force of impact. Anderson was the first of three similar class actions filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. On August 3, 47 additional players brought similar allegations against the NFL, Riddell, and a number of other sports entities. Pear v. National Football League et al., No. LC094453 (Cal. Sup. Ct. Aug. 3, 2011). On August 26, another 18 players entered the picture. Barnes v. National Football League et al., No. BC468483 (Cal. Sup. Ct. Aug. 26, 2011). At this time, the three actions have not been consolidated.
Even with the protection of helmets and pads, concussions and injuries are still commonplace within the game. While injuries still occur, they shouldn’t be attributed to any defect in the equipment. Football is a dangerous game. Players routinely collide into one another using incredible force. If not for helmets and pads, injuries would be even more prevalent. To our knowledge, there are no feasible alternative designs which could eliminate concussions. The manufacturers are not responsible for the risks of the game. They are responsible for doing what they can to minimize those risks. Players should know of the potential harm their profession poses to their bodies.
Last year, we reported on the claim brought by a former player’s widow against the NFL and an equipment manufacturer. In that case, the plaintiff alleged that helmets and shoulder pads were defectively designed and that the NFL failed to warn of the dangers of heat stroke. By contrast, the recent string of claims allege that the NFL not only failed to warn, but intentionally concealed the dangerous effects of the game of football. We can’t speak as to what the NFL did or did not know about concussions. Whatever evidence may or may not be produced on that point, how can the players allege that they were completely oblivious to the dangers?
With scientific and medical research, we are constantly expanding our knowledge about the brain and the prevention of head injuries. Accordingly, it is understandable that a player in the 1920’s may have had less knowledge about such things than a player in the 1990’s. With the expansion of knowledge, the NFL and the equipment manufacturers have evolved their standards to protect players. The abandonment of the old leather-helmets illustrate this point. By the mid-1940s, football helmets were required by the NFL. Obviously, the league recognized a need to protect the head. We can only assume that players understood this same need every time they strapped on a helmet.
We recognize that protecting one’s self from the danger of an impact does not necessarily carry with it knowledge of long-term effects of concussions. However, today’s scientific evidence was not available yesterday. Indeed, one need not be a practicing physician to recognize that every time something is damaged, it doesn’t come back in quite the same position it was before.
We here at Abnormal Use love football. We respect the players and recognize the risk they take on a daily basis for both the thrill of the game and our entertainment. These latest lawsuits against the NFL, however, are misguided. Football is dangerous. Helmets are not just a placard for team logos. They are worn for a reason.