TBI, CTE, and the NFL: How Personal Injury Litigation Changed America’s New Pastime

Posted on April 16, 2015 by Aman Shah

The NFL has long eclipsed Major League Baseball as this country's favorite sport. But somewhere on the road to record Super Bowl ratings, billion-dollar TV deals, and a nationwide fantasy sports obsession, the golden train suffered a temporary derailment. While most agree that the NFL holds Teflon status in the world of entertainment, bad press is bad press. And when bad press includes former players suing their former employer, bad press means lost revenues. Such was the case last year when the NFL agreed to settle a longstanding class action lawsuit brought forth by former players who had suffered debilitating brain injuries presumably as a result of repeated hits to the head during games. The initial $765 million settlement, which many had characterized as woefully insufficient relative to the NFL's $10 billion per year revenue, was tweaked to remove any dollar-value cap on settlements. But does this mean that the NFL is out of the woods?

TBI (i.e. Traumatic Brain Injury) and CTE (i.e. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) are acronyms only recently linked to the NFL. TBI is a condition that essentially occurs each time a player suffers a concussion. CTE, on the other hand, is a long-term neurological degenerative condition which can lead to anything from headaches and memory loss to depression and suicide. CTE has been found by many in the medical profession to be a potential result of repeated TBIs. Indeed, the stories of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson highlight the possible consequences of untreated and repeated hits to the head.

TBI and CTE, just like the NFL, are acronyms that mean very little to the general public absent compelling real-life narratives. Now that litigation has linked faces (and dollars) to the NFL's concussion issue, the "Shield" must now navigate through the uncharted waters of a post-settlement world. The biggest mistake the NFL initially made, the primary rationale behind the lawsuit, was that the League failed to disclose to its participants the real-life dangers of game-related hits to the head. Now that everything is (seemingly) out on the table, what must the NFL do to avoid risks of further liability? We know that football is an inherently dangerous sport. We've already seen a greater emphasis on the sideline "concussion protocol", fit with coaches taking a more conservative outlook on treating hits to the head. We've also seen the NFL increase penalties and fines for illegal hits. Stories have even come out about helmet technology that can immediately gauge the severity of a hit to the head. All of this is a direct result of litigation. Whether these implementations work to reduce the number of concussions remains to be seen. But the NFL has, through significant legal prodding, taken some initial steps to make their game safer for the players who have helped make the league so profitable.