More than a dozen suits, filed since July on behalf of more than 120 retired players and their wives, say that the N.F.L. and in some cases helmet manufacturers deliberately concealed information about the neurological effects of repeated hits to the head. Several suits also say that even if the league did not know about the potential impact of brain trauma sustained on the field, it should have known.
Taken together, the suits filed in courts across the country amount to a multifront legal challenge to the league and to the game itself. While the retired players, including stars like Jim McMahon and Jamal Lewis, face a time-consuming and difficult battle, the N.F.L. will have to spend heavily on lawyers to fend off the chance that juries might award the retired players millions of dollars in damages.
The league must also grapple with unflattering publicity as former players claiming to be hobbled by injuries and, in some cases, suffering from financial problems sue their former employer, the steward of America’s most popular sport. The stakes will only get higher if any of the cases go to trial, where details may emerge about what the N.F.L. knew about concussions and when, how it handled that information, and whether it pushed manufacturers to make the safest helmets possible.
“I don’t think the N.F.L. can consider these cases nuisances,” said Mark Conrad, who teaches sports law at Fordham University. “They will take them seriously because if it goes the wrong way, it could be a bombshell.”
The N.F.L. is no stranger to the courts. In the past few years, it has tangled over merchandising, drug testing and antitrust exemptions. But those issues were largely alien to the average fan and barely slowed the league’s primary mission to put on games.
The notion of retired players telling a jury the league is at least partly liable for their dementia and other cognitive disabilities is an entirely different matter, legal experts say, because the players’ testimonies are bound to get a sympathetic audience and cast a shadow over the league.
“We believe that the long-term medical complications that have been associated with multiple concussions — such as memory loss, impulse anger-control problems, disorientation, dementia — were well documented, and that factually the N.F.L. knew or should have known of these potentially devastating neurological problems, and yet it didn’t take any active role in addressing the issue for players,” said Larry Coben, who represents seven retirees, including McMahon, the quarterback who helped lead the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl victory in 1986.
Brad Karp, an outside counsel for the league, said: “The N.F.L. has long made player safety a priority and continues to take steps to protect players and to advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions. The N.F.L. has never misled players with respect to the risks associated with playing football. Any suggestion to the contrary has no merit.”
A trial is not imminent, however, and may never occur, legal experts said. The league will try to get the cases dismissed, they said, and the former players must hope a judge will allow the cases to proceed.
In a sign of the high hurdles facing the retired players, the league has successfully convinced at least one federal judge that any claims by the players should be handled under the collective bargaining agreements that they signed during their N.F.L. careers.
The retired players, naturally, disagree. They argue that as retirees, they are no longer party to those collective bargaining agreements and that only since they stopped playing did they unearth evidence that they were not adequately warned of the dangers of concussions.
The debate over this issue may be settled in Philadelphia after the league and many of the plaintiffs ask the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, a federal board, to combine all the cases and move them to federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The N.F.L. prefers this approach because it allows its lawyers to focus on a single case that will produce a single resolution, and reduce the possibility of inconsistent rulings by different judges.
Assuming the players can persuade a judge to let their case go forward, they will most likely argue that the N.F.L. rejected widely accepted science on head trauma for years, and that the league’s doctors produced research that later was found to be severely flawed.