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How a Class Action Lawsuit Made Contact Sports Safer

By: Anapol Weiss

Medical research in the 1990s and 2000s examined whether concussions (especially repetitive concussions) could result in cognitive impairment years later.

Former football players developed dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease years or even decades before the average age in the general population. Researchers named these losses Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), formerly known as “punch-drunk.” CTE can only be diagnosed after death through an autopsy of the brain. Retired football players may develop cognitive defects associated with CTE.

The NFL disputed any link between football and cognitive losses. Anapol Weiss shareholders Larry Coben and Sol Weiss filed the first class action against the NFL, seeking to hold the NFL accountable for cognitive defects.

Other lawyers filed similar lawsuits. At first, public opinion favored the NFL. As additional research emerged, public perception shifted in favor of the players. Football leagues, along with leagues for sports like soccer, lacrosse, and hockey, have instituted significant safety policies for head injuries. The NFL now admits the connection between head trauma and cognitive injuries. The NFL concussion case has settled and deserving players will soon begin to receive money from a generous settlement fund.

The NFL made 39 rule changes since 2010 to prioritize player health and safety. The NFL has instituted extensive concussion protocols. It poured tens of millions of dollars into research on and technology for brain injuries. The following examples demonstrate how the lawsuit pushed the league to take responsibility for its players.

Rule Changes

The NFL has made strides in actually changing the rules of the game to increase safety for players. While the changes have been many, the following few examples demonstrate the shift. In 2013, the NFL instituted a new rule to prohibit runners and defenders from hitting other players with their helmets when they are outside the tackle box.

As of 2015, if an offensive player attempting to catch a ball that has been intercepted, the interception team may no longer hit the offensive player in the head or neck. These rules seek to protect the most vulnerable part of the athletes (their brains) without detracting from the techniques of the game.

Concussion Spotters

In 2011, the NFL put independent certified athletic trainers, or “concussion spotters,” into place at every football game. The concussion spotters were tasked with watching the game to find any player who may have suffered from a concussion. In 2015, they were further empowered with the ability to actually stop the game, using a medical timeout, if they see a player exhibiting signs of a concussion on the field.

Although the presence of concussion spotters is certainly progress, they are still unable to identify every potential concussion and stop the game for testing. Too often, they wait until the end of a play to call a medical timeout. Sometimes, players even hide symptoms of concussions because they themselves do not want to come out of the game. NFL rules have changed, and slowly so has the culture of prioritizing health.

Players are now aware of the dangers of concussions and sub-concussive hits, so they stay off the field longer and some even retire earlier. The NFL education policy about the long-term dangers of concussions is another benefit from the litigation.

Trickle-down Effect

While the NFL was the specific target of litigation, the lawsuit has had far-reaching effects on the culture of the entire football community in the US, including at the college, high school, and childhood levels. Even the youth football league Pop Warner made changes in response to concussion research and litigation.

As of 2012, Pop Warner prohibited full speed head-on blocking or tackling between players of more than three yards apart. They also mandated that only one third of practice time may involve contact. In 2013, the National Federation of State High School Associations Football rules committee instituted rule changes to protect players whose helmets have come off during a game.

Football is an inherently aggressive contact sport, but certain regulations and practices can drastically limit the amount of serious injuries that players receive to the brain. The lawsuit has pushed the NFL to proactively change their laws and their culture, making real change for the players of today and the future. It forced them to recognize that they were destroying the very people that make the NFL what it is: the players.

Check out other Anapol Weiss blog posts about the dangers of concussions both on and off the football field.