Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Year in Sports – concussions the order of the day

Concussions plagued the sports industry in 2012; in 2013 concussions could have a significant impact on the sports industry and an enormous impact on the business of sports. One of the largest lawsuits in sports liability history is set to unfold in 2013 the results could cripple the foundation for both football and hockey.

More than 4,000 retired National Football League players and their families have filed a lawsuit in a Philadelphia Federal Court that contends the National Football League willfully withheld information relating to player safety and the impact concussions had on NFL players between the founding of the NFL in the 1920’s through 2010.

Regardless of how the lawsuit is settled, the impact on the foundation of both the National Football League and the National Hockey League could face serious damages. Insurance premiums for Pop Warner, high school football, youth, competitive hockey development programs could skyrocket, making the organization of youth football and hockey next to impossible to be economically viable.

“Insurers will be tightening up their own coverage and make sports more expensive,” said Robert Boland, who teaches sports law at New York University in a New York Times report. “It could make the sustainability of certain sports a real issue.”

In May 2012 former San Diego Charger Junior Seau committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest in 2012 at the age of 43. In April, 2012 former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling’s death at age 62 was ruled a suicide. And in 2011, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide. Easterling is reported to have suffered from depression and insomnia, and then dementia that progressively worsened. The three all died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Last Saturday former major league baseball player December 15 Ryan Freel who suffered either nine or 10 concussions in his MLB career committed suicide. Freel was 36.

Last week the National Football League again attempted to have the lawsuit tossed out of the courts claiming according to nflconcussionlitigation.com’s Paul D. Anderson “The NFL has framed the NFL concussion litigation as nothing more than a labor dispute over workplace health and safety. The players, on the other hand, have framed this litigation as a full frontal attack against the NFL for committing wrongs (i.e. fraud and negligence) against the players.

“In its 30 page brief—drafted by some of the greatest legal minds in the country—the NFL argues that the court must kick the players’ lawsuits out of court because they are barred by the CBAs. The NFL’s reasoning is primarily based upon Supreme Court precedence, two federal judges’ Orders, and the unique nature of federal labor law.”

In July a master complaint was filed in federal court, combining dozens of existing lawsuits against the NFL. The NFL is being accused of failing to provide information linking football-related head injuries to permanent memory loss, brain damage, and other long-term health issues related to concussions.

According to nflconcussionslawsuit.com:

For decades the medical community knew that repeated blows to the head caused long term brain damage in boxers.

In 1994 after a string of incidents, the NFL decided to research MTBI and its effects. Strangely, Commissioner Tagliabue named a rheumatologist (Dr. Pellman), not a neurologist, to run the study. Dr. Pellman admitted that prior to the study most team physicians relied on “on-field anecdotes” to treat concussions and the purpose of the study was to provide facts and direction for team physicians.

Strangely, the results of the NFL’s research contradicted commonplace concussion management protocols and other research being conducted by neurologists across the country. The NFL’s published findings stated that concussions “were not serious injuries” and doctors should use their discretion rather than follow an “arbitrary, rigid” concussion management system. This shocked many in the medical community and contradicted NCAA studies and practices.

Beginning in 2002, autopsies of former players’ brains showed an unusual build up of dangerous proteins believed to be the result of repeated concussions and sub-concussive events. The condition, named CTE, is marked by memory loss, insomnia, speech difficulties, impulse control and depression. Researchers notified the NFL and published their findings.

In 2007, the NFL published its own brochures for players that stated that research “has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly.” The brochure did not mention the research on CTE and NFL sponsored researchers continued to dispute that concussions caused brain damage in dead players.

In 2009, Congress held hearings on the NFL’s management of concussions. The fact that the NFL funded its own research that stood in such contrast to what mainstream medicine understood about MTBI/concussions led Congress to compare the NFL’s actions to the tobacco industry of the 1990s.

In July 2010, less than one year after denying that concussions can lead to permanent damage, the NFL dramatically changed course. They put up posters in locker rooms that cautioned its players that multiple concussions could cause permanent brain damage, memory loss, personality changes, depression and dementia. Concussions, the posters said, “can change your life and your family’s life forever.”

If the lawsuit is successful the National Football League could face billions of dollars in damages. Insurance for both the NFL and NCAA will dramatically increase. Both the NFL and college football programs have the financial wherewithal to withstand the court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. The same can’t be said for Pop Warner and high school football organizations.

“A common misconception is that no one’s going to sue their youth league or nonprofit, but that’s not the case,” Dan Pullen, who runs an insurance brokerage in Fort Worth that specializes in policies for teams, players and leagues told The New York Times. “Maybe the league isn’t negligent, but there might be $50,000 in legal claims” for a lawyer to chase.

The hockey community was rocked by three deaths in 2011 two by suicide, one through a drug overdose, a first cousin to suicide. In August 2011 Wade Belak, 35 committed suicide in a Toronto hotel, two weeks earlier Rick Rypien who had signed a contract to play with the Winnipeg Jets committed suicide and in May 2011, Derek Boogaard, one of the most feared fighters in the league, died of an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol in the middle of a post-concussion haze. Belak, Rypien and Boogaard were NHL enforcers, hockey players known for their ability to fight throughout their major junior and professional careers.

Sidney Crosby missed most of the 2010-11 NHL season after suffering a series of concussions. According to a January 2012 Toronto Star report midway through the 2010-11 NHL season more than 73 different NHL players had missed games through brain related injuries.

Bill Hubbard, chief executive of HCC Specialty, a New York-based company that also specializes in the sports industry in January told the Toronto Star, he believes insurance companies are going to have to rethink insuring hockey players who have suffered concussions.

“Right now you’ve got 10 per cent of the league affected by concussions,” Hubbard said. “While I don’t know where the breaking point is, at some point, if it keeps trending this way, companies are not going to be able to insure NHL players for concussions.”

“We used to have one question asking players their history with cardiac issues and other problems like concussions,” Greg Sutton, the company’s president told The Toronto Star.

“Now, concussions have their own section. We’re asking about frequency, how bad they were and how many games they missed. We know you’re not recovered from brain injuries because the symptoms go away. This is not an organ like the liver that can regenerate itself.

“You’re going to see a lot more contracts with concussion exclusions. It’s a big risk. Teams are going to have more exposure related to concussions that they’re going to have to eat.”

The National Football League, NCAA football and the National Hockey League need youth football and hockey to develop football and hockey players. Dramatically increased insurance costs could make it next to impossible for the key development leagues to function. As 2012 comes to a close, concussions and the NFL retired player lawsuit could have a lasting impact on the sports industry.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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