Impact of NFL concussion lawsuit settlement felt in Baltimore

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.

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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."

Trickle-down effect

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 "weak" over fear of suffering

from a concussion.

"There's a big awareness now of the long-term dangers of concussions and head injuries," Laird said. "It was the retired players who helped bring this issue the attention it needed."

While the NFL's fight over concussions has attracted most of the headlines, there are a growing number of cases at the college level and below which outlines the issue is not just isolated to professionals.

This includes the case of former Grand Valley State quarterback Cullen Finnerty. The 30-year-old died in May in the Michigan wilderness of pneumonia caused by inhaling his vomit, after he became disoriented possibly because of a painkiller combined with having CTE, according to a report released last month.

Then there is the case of former Frostburg State football player Derek Sheely, 22, of Germantown, who died in August 2011. His parents are suing head coach Thomas Rogish, helmet-maker Schutt Sports, the NCAA and others as defendants.after they allege he died after a second concussion following practice drills that caused players to suffer repeated blows to the head.               

"The impact of concussions is not limited to the old," said Dr. Jeffrey Mayer of Harbor Sports Medicine. "It's not just the big-time hits that you see on the highlight films that can cause problems. There is also the concern over repetitive blows to the head over an extended period of time. We've made great strides in the medical community of understanding this issue and helping the general public understands the warning signs as well."

Lessons learned

That message is heard loud and clear at all levels of football. This includes in Maryland,  where last year the state board of education required coaches be educated on how to identify traumatic head injuries and that they remove any student from a game that they have suspected may have suffered a concussion.

Local colleges are also keenly aware of the health issue at hand. Among those schools are Johns Hopkins. A Division III power, Hopkins players, coaches and staff stress they work to ensure a player's health remains their top priority.

Like most colleges today, Hopkins players work with the school's medical staff to establish a neurological baseline at the start of the season. This enables the staff to not only better diagnose a concussion, but establish a set of individual criteria for returning to the field.

In addition, Hopkins has modeled much of its practice schedule after the NFL, which now limits the amount of live contact at practice.

"I'd rather have players come back a week late than a day early," Hopkins football coach Jim Margraff said. "We're a lot more aware of concussions today than we were when I played. Back then, you just tried to clear your head and went back out there. There was no thought to the consequences.

"Players today know better. Especially at the Division III level, players know they are not going to the NFL and that they need their brains. We do all we can to ensure player safety comes first. A lot of that new awareness has come from the attention garnered by the NFL, which has taken aware a lot of the stigma of players pulling themselves out of games."

Hopkins wide receiver Dan Wodicka understands this issue more than many college football players.

A senior biomedical engineering major, Wodicka spent the last two summers studying the effect of concussions on football players during a fellowship at Purdue University in Indiana.

"Concussions in football and sports in general are a hot topic right now," Wodicka said. "I think the concern over head injuries have done a lot to lead to extra effort to teach proper technique, especially at the Pop Warner and high school levels where they may not have the same access to medical staffs like we do.

Hopkins head athletics trainer Brad Mountcastle said the public's greater awareness regarding concussions has helped him do his job better. Today, he said, players are quicker to come to him with symptoms and don't try as often to hide a head injury from the staff.

"If we can be proactive in our approach and our treatment, players are less likely to suffer long-term effects from concussions," Mountcastle said. "If they go out there too soon, those affected that might not surface for 10, 15 or 20 years could show up much sooner. Education is the key."

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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