As reported last week on "Outside the Lines," the NFL Pension and Disability Board ("the Board") granted the late Mike Webster benefits back in 1999 because of concussion-related brain trauma from his years playing football. This news raises more questions than answers, among them the role of the players' union and the impact on the growing number of concussion lawsuits.
The NFL Players Association has generally been able to escape the wrath of former players in these concussion cases. That may change.
The Board in cases like Webster's is made up of three members appointed by the NFL, three members appointed by the NFLPA and a representative of the commissioner. If the NFL knew of this link between football and future brain-related trauma, then it would follow that the NFLPA knew of it as well.
A key moment regarding concussion awareness in the NFL was the 2009 congressional hearings on the issue. Congressmen scolded the lax attitude toward concussions -- comparing it to (gasp) the tobacco industry -- of not only NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell but also NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith. At least from Congress' point of view, the union cannot skate on this issue any more than the NFL can.
The NFL has thousands suing it for misrepresentation and concealment; it will be interesting to see whether the NFLPA starts appearing in lawsuits as a defendant.
The Webster case further points out that of the thousands of former players who experienced concussions and the many now experiencing them, all have differing symptoms, issues and concerns. Like snowflakes, no two concussions are alike.
Michael Vick, Alex Smith and Jay Cutler sat out games last weekend after having concussions the previous week, but several other players earlier this season played a week after a concussion. The 49ers' Joe Staley played in a Thursday night game after a Sunday concussion. In contrast, the Lions' Jahvid Best will not play this season or perhaps ever again because of previous concussions, the last one occurring more than a year ago.
Unlike knees, hamstrings, shoulders, etc., where the protocol for treatment has been developed and practiced over decades, concussion protocol appears to have no absolute rules for return-to-play because each concussion is different.
There will be lawyers
Some of the thousands of plaintiffs now suing the NFL have true mental and physical infirmities, whether caused by playing football or something else. Others are starting to show symptoms and are pursuing medical monitoring. And still others are without symptoms but have been approached by attorneys about joining the suits and say "Why not?" I have been asked by some potential and existing plaintiffs about whether they should join the lawsuits, usually with a conversation like this:
"Mr. Brandt, I've been approached about joining these concussion lawsuits against the NFL. What do you think?"
"Do you have symptoms?"
"Then why would you join up?"
"Well, I may get worse later on and the lawyers tell me I should protect that. And I don't have to pay them anything. It's contingent!"
"How do you feel about suing the NFL without real symptoms?"
"Well, there's no downside, right?"
"The downside is your own personal set of ethics."
"Hey, they used me for years, now I can maybe get a check in a few years."
"Let me ask you this: Knowing what you know now, would you do it again, play in the NFL."
The "concussion conundrum," as I have called it, may be the single most important issue ahead for the NFL. There will be many twists and turns ahead like the Webster case, but this is going to be a long-and-winding road before any level of guilt or innocence is established.
The impact of new legislation in Colorado and Washington permitting adults over 21 years old to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use will be interesting. While certain Broncos and Seahawks players may believe they can now reach for a joint with impunity, it is not that simple.
The NFL's substance-abuse policy provides "The NFL prohibits players from the illegal use, possession, or distribution of drugs, including but not limited to ... marijuana." Although Broncos and Seahawks players who test positive for marijuana use can claim that such use is not "illegal" because it is now permitted under state law, they shouldn't light up just yet. The NFL will certainly counter that: (1) marijuana use remains prohibited under federal law, and (2) the CBA's substance-abuse policy requires uniformity across the league.
As we have seen in the recent history between the NFL and the NFLPA, there is little that goes undisputed. It will be interesting to see if the new laws in Colorado and Washington -- pardon the pun -- stir the pot once again.
Thanksgiving in Motown
Over the nine years I was with the Packers, we played in three Thanksgiving Day games in Detroit. We were told Fox requested the Packers' presence on Thanksgiving as much as possible.
Playing an away game four days after a Sunday game presented some competitive challenges, as the entire league is learning this year with the weekly Thursday night games. The schedule for our Thankgiving-week games went as follows: game planning and meetings on Monday; the week's only practice on Tuesday; and a walk-through on Wednesday before catching a plane for Detroit in the early afternoon.
The injury decisions would be compressed; assessments about game availability for players that would normally be made on Friday or Saturday would now have to be made on Tuesday or Wednesday, often without the benefit of seeing the players practice.
Competitively, the Lions obviously had a slight advantage, because they were able to have more of a normal day on Wednesday without travel. As with anything, though, complaining about the short week was futile.
Though we did not want to admit it publicly, no one on the Packers minded playing the Thanksgiving game in Detroit. After an early game (11:30 a.m. CT) and a short flight home, we were all pulling up a chair with our families for a Thanksgiving dinner. Moreover, it gave the players, coaches and staff a weekend without football, a mini-bye week to prepare for the grind of December football.
When we hear coaches and players gripe about playing on Thursday night, know that some of it is for show; everyone loves a mini-bye week, especially late in the year.
Warm wishes to all for a happy and healthy Thanksgiving full of family and football ...