Another Question: Is the NFL Doomed?

by Dave Schuler on January 10, 2013

I’m just full of questions today. What effect do you think that the spate of cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain damage due to repeated blows to the head, will have on the NFL? I doubt that public outcry is the biggest danger to the organization. I think that liability suits are.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

steve January 10, 2013 at 9:41 am

It has not put the US Army out of business. Granted, they can pass costs on to the public, but I would expect the NFL to negotiate something with the union. The players dont want the big money to go away. Probably larger pensions and strict guidelines for playing after injury, with guidelines nominally set by the players union. They do need to survive the coming suits from ex-players injured before such an agreement.

Query- Why wouldnt this go all the way back to college or even high school? Big schools like Alabama and Notre Dame have lots of money to go after.


PD Shaw January 10, 2013 at 9:54 am

I’m skeptical of the lawsuits against the NFL, which I think would require some sort of superior knowledge about the medical issues that were concealed from the players, who had no way of independently learning of the risks. I don’t think the NFL sits in the same situation as the tobacco companies, for instance. I don’t think boxing or NASCAR are in danger as long as adults make knowing decisions.

The high school lawsuits will probably worsen though. In many states, the schools are deemed to be acting in loco parentis, and have heightened responsibilities for those in their care. Though this leads to the uncomfortable question of whether the parents themselves could be liable for football injuries to their sons. But I could see a future where high schools leave football, though it could be taken up by athletic associations.

Dave Schuler January 10, 2013 at 10:12 am

It has not put the US Army out of business.

The courts and the Congress tend to defer to the military in a way they do not to the NFL. That being said, yes, I think that Pop Warner and high school football programs are even more vulnerable than the NFL.

TimH January 10, 2013 at 10:23 am

There’s a few things at play here, but I think the most important is that I’ve seen few indications that current players treat the risk of brain injury seriously (and few retired players complain too loudly, either). See Brian Urlacher stating that he’d play through a concussion (which I think is a dangerous statement coming from an elite player, which may cause emulation by younger players in high schools).

The real shame is that the root cause is rigid ‘padding’ that actually makes it easier to injure or get injured. You think with a soft pad and helmets like bike helmets, we’d have nearly as many bone crushing hits as we do? I don’t.

Having said that, the NFL (more than most other sports leagues) has proven adept at seeing which way the wind blows (for example, it continues to refine game rules much more than other sports), and if changes are necessary for the continued survival of the league, you bet they’ll make them quickly.

Drew January 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm

“I doubt that public outcry is the biggest danger to the organization. I think that liability suits are.”


“Query- Why wouldnt this go all the way back to college or even high school?”

It will. Trial lawyers have mansions to build, and heartstrings to tug on. Such a busy day……

sam January 10, 2013 at 12:18 pm

“The real shame is that the root cause is rigid ‘padding’ that actually makes it easier to injure or get injured. You think with a soft pad and helmets like bike helmets”

Would such helmets ameliorate the effects of the third collision (which is what causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy)?

sam January 10, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Actually, the word I was looking for is ‘attenuate’ — would such helmets attenuate the effects…

Janis Gore January 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Pete Gent of the Dallas Cowboys wrote about these problems decades ago.

Janis Gore January 10, 2013 at 1:05 pm

His were back problems.

PD Shaw January 10, 2013 at 4:24 pm

steve, there are probably going to be statute of limitations issues going back too far. The situation seems a little more complicated than being exposed to a toxic substance which only manifests as cancer later in life. Presumably the player knows they’ve been injured almost immediately, but they don’t know how bad or how long. Maybe pretty complicated and depend on each situation. But if the assumption is the player knew some things, but not everything, its hard to blame the schools for not knowing everything.

steve January 10, 2013 at 6:18 pm

@PD- Not an area I know a lot about, but didn’t companies lose suits over asbestos even though they used it not knowing it was harmful? Wouldnt this be similar? When does ignorance get you off the hook? Also, it is still not clear to me how the statute of limitations would apply for minors in these cases.


Tom Lindmark January 10, 2013 at 6:21 pm

I doubt that the NFL will be brought down by lawsuits, however, the threat to the NFL feeders from Pop Warner through high school and college will eventually choke off the supply of talent. The largest threat and the eventual demise will probably arise from more parents – moms in particular – who put their foot down and say no way no how is my son going to play football. Presto, you not only have less talent but you lose your next generation of fans.

Just for the record it is not possible to design a helmet that will eliminate brain trauma. The brain floats inside your cranium. You don’t have to suffer a blow to the head to incur a concussion. Just sudden deceleration, for example when a linebacker blindsides you after you catch a ball, is sufficient to send the brain crashing into the skull.

Janis Gore January 10, 2013 at 7:09 pm

My husband played HS football shortly in the early 60′s. They gave him salt tablets , but no water.

He was a slender man. He’d collapse in cramps. That’s his story. There’s always another one.

Andy January 10, 2013 at 8:34 pm

It has not put the US Army out of business.

Not remotely the same. In the military, the threat of maiming and death is part of the deal.

steve January 10, 2013 at 9:41 pm

“Not remotely the same. In the military, the threat of maiming and death is part of the deal.”

Hasnt that always been true of football?


PD Shaw January 11, 2013 at 10:22 am

@steve, the asbestos litigation is largely brought against the manufacturers (or their insurers) on the theory of products liability. The manufacturer is strictly liable for defective products it sells, irregardless of whether they exercised reasonable care. Negligence is not relevant. I believe this theory arose out of commercial law (implied warranties) and the expectation that a manufacturer stands in a superior position of knowledge of the product to the customer and can perform tests on the product or at at the very least provide notice of the hazards. As I understand the statute of limitations issues, at least in my state, inhalation of asbestos fibers is not an injury or not deemed a completed injury until symptoms appear, which can be decades, or diagnosed.

Someone suffering traumatic brain injuries today is going to have to prove that the football programs were negligent several years ago; that there were things they should have done, but were not done. This will be complicated by the need to provide a theory of why the lawsuit wasn’t brought within the limitations period. The natural tendency of the plaintiff will be to say they didn’t know how serious the injury was, which is pretty much the football program’s defense, we would have tried to do more if we knew then, what we know now. Just from my recollection of North Dallas Forty, it would seem like the players know they have been seriously injured, and are in extreme pain during the game and through retirement, which seems a lot different than the latent harm of asbestos fibers in the lung, which you may not even know you have.

PD Shaw January 11, 2013 at 10:54 am

BTW/ the lawyers I ate lunch with yesterday seem to think that the liability issues will be resolved by notices and waivers.

@Tom, for years I’ve heard many moms express horror at the idea that their sons might play football and I know that they discretely pushed their sons into other sports so that somehow there is no time for football, and then its too late to catch-up. I think the hand-wringing middle class will continue on this path, hardening class divisions among the participants. In turn, the perception that the kids are victims of their parents and the schools will increase.

Andy January 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Hasnt that always been true of football?

Since when was maiming and death part of football?

steve January 12, 2013 at 10:19 am


From 1931-1970 we averaged about 18 deaths a year from football. That has actually decreased. We had a spate of heat related deaths in the 90s (80s?). Before the era of the modern ACL repair, your career was done and you likely ended up with a permanently unstable knee. There has always been risk when people run into each other as hard as they can. Not everything is fixable.


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