BALTIMORE - * In an earlier version of this story, The Associated Press reported erroneously that Frostburg State University was named as a defendant in a suit filed over the death of former football player Derek Sheely. Members of the school's 2011 football staff are named as defendants, but not the university itself. A corrected version of the story is below:
Retired Baltimore Colts cornerback Bruce Laird doesn’t have dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
But, Laird said he knows too many players from his generation and beyond who are suffering from such ailments, likely due to multiple concussions and/or head injuries that went undiagnosed or weren’t treated properly.
It was that concern for his fellow players that led Laird, who played in the NFL from 1972 to 83, to become an advocate for trying to secure better health benefits for retired players, especially those that played in the years before multi-million dollar contracts.
Laird was also one of more than 4,500 former players who last week resolved a concussion-related lawsuit with the league. The parties involved reached a $765 million settlement that would fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation and medical research, a federal judge said Thursday. Among those players with local ties that were plaintiffs in the case were former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis and defensive lineman Michael McCrary.
Many former players with neurological conditions believe their problems stem from on-field concussions. The lawsuits accused the league of hiding known risks of concussions for decades to return players to games and protect its image. Several players went on to suffer from depression to the point where they committed suicide.
“We were taken aback that we were able to reach this agreement,” said Laird, who is also president of Fourth and Goal Unites , a non-profit that advocates for retired NFL players. “This is something where we have advocated for years for the NFL to meet its obligations to those who unknowingly injured their brains during their career. Everyone understood the physical risks involved with playing pro football, but were oblivious to the cognitive issues they would face later in life.”
Among the top concerns of the retirees was the growing number of former NFL players and other concussed athletes who have been diagnosed after their deaths with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Those ex-players included Junior Seau and lead plaintiff Ray Easterling, who filed the first suit in Philadelphia in August 2011 but later committed suicide.
Laird said that while the money from the settlement will go to good use, it will also leave many questions unanswered. He added that settlement will likely mean that the NFL will not have to disclose what it knew and when it knew when it came to concussion-related health issues stemming from playing in the NFL.
“I wouldn’t call it hush up money, but it was close,” Laird said. “We’re dealing with many players who were concussed or multiple concussed and their medical records are nowhere to be found. We were also dealing with previous eras of football where there were no neurologist on staff and doctors who weren’t properly qualified telling players they were OK to get back into the game after ‘having their bell rung.’”
Dr. Kevin Crutchfield, a sports concussion doctor with LifeBridge Health's Comprehensive Sports Concussion Program, agrees.
“The NFL didn’t want discovery in this case,” Dr. Crutchfield said. “As a physician, I would have liked to learn what they knew and when. This is not an admission of guilt, but a way to reduce the chance of backlash at lower levels of football, where the talent pool could start to dry up when moms stop letting their boys play because of fear of them getting a concussion.”
NFL Executive Vice President Jeffrey Pash said this agreement lets the league help those who need it most and make the game safer for current and future players.
“Commissioner [Roger] Goodell and every owner gave the legal team the same direction: do the right thing for the game and for the men who played it,” said Pash in a statement. “We thought it was critical to get more help to players and families who deserve it rather than spend many years and millions of dollars on litigation.
“This is an important step that builds on the significant changes we’ve made in recent years to make the game safer, and we will continue our work to better the long-term health and well-being of NFL players.”
Laird said that while he is not completely happy with the terms of the agreement, he believes all of the attention that the lawsuit garnered brought the issue of concussions in football at all levels to the forefront.
Laird added that he is pleased to see the changes being made to practices at all levels of football and the mindset that a player should not be considered