Paul Domowitch: Concussion suits a real headache for NFL

Posted: May 19, 2012

With each passing day, the list of plaintiffs filing concussion lawsuits against the NFL grows. At last check, more than 2,100 former players have filed suit against the league in 74 separate lawsuits, most of which have been consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia. By the end of the summer, the number of plaintiffs could exceed 3,000.

The list of plaintiffs includes Hall of Famers like Lem Barney and Joe DeLamielleure and Rickey Jackson and Paul Krause, and Super Bowl MVPs like Mark Rypien and Dexter Jackson.

It includes journeymen like Reno Mahe and Matt Schobel and Shane Matthews and Teddy Lehman, and former No. 1 picks like Tim Couch and Courtney Brown. Even a bunch of former kickers, including Chip Lohmiller and Garo Yepremian, have hopped on board the Sue Train.

A lot of the players who have joined the lawsuits might view it simply as a cash grab. They might have only had a cup of coffee in the NFL. Might have never suffered a concussion. But what the hell? If this goes to trial and a jury gives the players a huge damage award, they want to be there with their hand out.

Others are in it for more legitimate reasons. They've heard the sad war stories of ex-players whose brains have turned to mush, who can't remember their kids' names, or spend their days sitting alone in a dark room battling depression and constant headaches. They are worried that could be them one day.

"It's absolutely scary," said former Eagles linebacker Garry Cobb, the publisher of the popular pro-football blog, GCobb.com, who played 11 seasons in the league and is one of the 2,100 plaintiffs. "My wife will say things about this and that. Stuff I won't remember. Maybe it's not a big deal. But with everything that's going on with [Junior] Seau and Andre [Waters] and [Dave] Duerson, you take it more seriously now."

The lawsuits accuse the NFL of negligence in treating and diagnosing concussions, as well as hiding information from players about the link between repeated concussions and long-term brain damage.

It won't be easy to prove. But if players' lawyers can get this case in front of a jury, anything can happen. Check out the league's history in jury trials. Hamilton Burger had a better track record against Perry Mason.

"A lot of these things could have been avoided if they had bothered to look into it, if the league had a different mind-set back then," Cobb said. "I like a lot of the people that are in leadership positions with the league today. I like commissioner [Roger] Goodell. He wants to do the right thing. But I can't say that was the case back when I was playing.

"I don't know that I can say that about [former Eagles owner] Norman Braman and some of the other owners in the past. Before, they went out of their way to just spit on some of the greatest players to ever play the game."

Former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese, who also is suing the league, estimates that he had about a dozen concussions during his NFL career. At 38, nearly 6 years removed from his last game, his health is fine. But like Cobb, he worries about the future, about what his brain is going to be like 5, 10, 15 years from now.

He's a talk-show host on WIP. His career depends on his ability to speak and think clearly. "If I can't be coherent or sound literate, how am I going to make a living?" he said. "Who's going to take care of me?

"You just can't take it for granted that there's nothing wrong internally. Because we don't know yet. We can't see down the road. I've always felt that - not that we didn't know what we were doing when we decided to suit up and play this sport - but I think there's a certain responsibility on the league's part to be ahead of the players when you're talking about the [long-term] impact of the game we play. And they weren't.

"A lot of people think [the lawsuits] are about the money. And it may be for some guys. Speaking for myself, if there happens to be something wrong with my brain 5 years from now, you want to be eligible to receive the proper treatment medicalwise. Those of us who have been out of the game for a while and didn't make the money that some of these other guys are making, our insurance isn't the same as what the new guys have now.

"If something's wrong [with my brain] down the line, they should be responsible for treating me. I think that's what a lot of us are trying to do. Make sure we're protected medically if there does happen to be something wrong. So we have the ability to be treated for it."

One of the more interesting plaintiffs in the lawsuits is former Eagles offensive lineman Brian Baldinger. Baldinger, who spent 11 seasons in the league, currently works as an analyst for the NFL Network, which is owned by the league. Which means Baldinger is not just suing his former employer, but his current one as well.

"I signed on about 2 months ago," said Baldinger, who also co-hosts a morning show on The Fanatic 97.5. "When it came out, I was nervous. But I haven't heard from anybody [at NFL Network] concerning it."

Baldinger said he joined the lawsuit not so much because he believes the league was negligent about concussions, but because he hopes the suits will prompt the league to do everything possible to make the game safer for players going forward.

"I wasn't looking to pile on the NFL," he said. "I wasn't looking for a paycheck. It's really about getting them to do further research and studies into this whole [concussion] issue. I'm all for, 'What can we do? We've got this problem. Now what can we do to make the game safer?'

"If we can help out as far as making the game safer, whether it's [better] equipment or whatever it might be, then I'm for it. That's why I signed on."

Baldinger doesn't dispute that many players suffered long-term brain damage from repeated concussions and should be compensated. But he also believes a lot of former players are conveniently using the concussion issue as a crutch for their postfootball struggles.

"I have a problem with guys who played a year and are signing on and claiming the NFL is the reason their life isn't where it should be," he said. "I think there's a lot of factors for that. Every time something bad happens to a football player now, they're going to say it's because of head trauma. I think that's unfair to the NFL. And I think it's unfair to a lot of these rookies who are coming into the league."

Quick hits

Now that the Eagles have made LeSean McCoy one of the league's highest-paid running backs, it will be interesting to see if they are any less willing to lighten his workload. Andy Reid has acknowledged several times in recent months that he overused McCoy last year and hopes to reduce his workload a bit this season so that he doesn't get worn down. McCoy finished fourth in the league with 321 touches last season. More significant, he was on the field for 894 snaps, more than any other back in the league. He's just 23 and hasn't had any major injury issues. So it's easy to think he's invincible. But running backs can get chewed up and spit out quickly if you don't use them smartly.

I stopped by NFL Films the other day to see Steve Sabol. Sabol, who was diagnosed with brain cancer last spring, still is receiving chemo treatments, but is feeling good and looks better than any 69-year-old man I've ever seen. Hell, he looks better than any 49-year-old man. Struggles with a word here and there, but otherwise, is doing great. "Even with this [cancer], I'm still a lucky man," he said during a chat in his office in Mount Laurel, N.J. "I've had a great life and I have so many great people around me." Steve showed me a card he received the other day from his 95-year-old father, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. On the front, it says, "Life isn't a bowl of cherries." Inside, it says, "It's a plate of oysters." Next to the message is an overhead shot of Big Ed sitting at his dining-room table with a huge plate of oysters in front of him.

If the Eagles are smart, they won't follow through on withholding a chunk of Jason Peters' $7.9 million salary this season. They've established a lot of locker-room harmony this offseason with the re-signing of players like McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans and Trent Cole. Taking money away from Peters because he ruptured his Achilles' tendon working out in Texas rather than at the NovaCare Complex would send a bad message to the players. It will discourage any of them from ever working out on their own. If Peters had hurt himself skiing or mountain-climbing or cliff-diving in Acapulco, that's one thing. But if you punish him for just trying to stay in shape when he was away from the complex, you're setting a bad precedent that ultimately will cost you a lot more than the $3 million you might save.

If Russell Wilson had fallen to the Eagles in the third round, they would have taken the 5-10 1/2 quarterback over the guy they did take, 6-5 Nick Foles. Despite his size, the Eagles had Wilson rated slightly higher than Foles. But the Seahawks took him with the 75th overall pick. The Eagles then took Foles with the 88th selection.

Odd linebacker out with the additions of DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks could be Brian Rolle rather than Jamar Chaney. I just can't see defensive coordinator Juan Castillo starting two sub-6-foot linebackers. Kendricks, the likely starter on the strong side, is 5-11. Rolle, who started 13 games on the weak side as a rookie last year, is just 5-9 1/2.

Send email to pdomo@aol.com or follow on Twitter @PDomo. Read the Daily News' Eagles blog at www.eagletarian.com.

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