The NFL world was shocked and saddened last year with news of the passing of well-known former player Junior Seau. Regarded as one of the best linebackers in the history of the game, the athlete was only 43 years old when he committed suicide last May. His death came at a time when the National Football League, and the sport as a whole, was under intense scrutiny as information emerged about the long-term harm to players from the game. With this year’s Super Bowl around the corner, one can expect more discussion about football and the possibility of severe brain injury in the coming days.
Those discussions are likely to be particular common considering that last week’s Seau’s family filed a brain injury lawsuit against the NFL and the equipment manufacturer Riddell, Inc. The family–Seau’s ex-wife and children–claim that the suicide was caused by brain damage that itself resulted from years of taking hard hits to the head in the game. Of course, football is a contact sport and all players understand that in playing the game they may face significant physical blows. However, the main legal issue is what the league knew about the long-term brain damage and what they did (or did not) do to limit the harm.
Seau’s family claims that the NFL hid information about the dangers, consequently allowing players to further risk themselves with deadly results. In this case, an autopsy on the retired athlete’s body revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopahty (CTE). CTE has been identified in many athletes and linked to a range of problems including behavioral changes, dementia, depression, and more. Several other former football players, including Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, have committed suicide and subsequently been found to have suffered from CTE.
In summarizing the family’s position, a statement was released which explained, “We know this lawsuit will not bring back Junior. But it will send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations.”
The family’s lawsuit against Riddell centers on claims that the helmet design used by Seau was negligent. They allege that the testing and manufacturing of the product violated safety protocols and that the marketing of the equipment was negligent.
The Seau family lawsuit is just the latest in string of claims by former players which accuse the NFL of hiding information about the dangers of the sport or downplaying risks over the years. According to a Washington Post story, at least 4,000 ex-players have already made legal claims against the league along the same lines.
Many of the cases, including the Seau matter, also accuse the NFL of marketing efforts to send the message that the most serious hits in the game are a “mark of honor” which should be encouraged. The argument is that this mind-set and promotion altered the way the game was played, ultimately leading more players to suffer serious long-term harm.
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