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Did the NFL hide the risk of brain injury from its players?

By now, most Massachusetts sports fans are aware of the multitude of lawsuits filed against the NFL. Many of the lawsuits have been combined into one class action claim that is now pending in federal court. Over 4,000 former NFL players and their wives have been joined in the claims. It is alleged that the NFL deliberately concealed from players the risk of brain injury caused by the repeated hits they took year after year on the football field.

There are a few legal issues relevant to these claims, the first of which is the legal principle of assumption of risk. By this defense theory, the NFL can be expected to assert that players knew the risks associated with the game and still elected to play professional football. As such, the league will likely argue that no compensation should be made available for players that knew of the potential for serious injury just by the nature of the game they freely chose to play. Countering that argument, the plaintiffs say the league had specific knowledge of the inherent dangers that it willfully withheld from its players.

A second issue involves the proverbial question: "What did the NFL know, and when did the NFL know it?" On this point, the league would appear to have a difficult time asserting it did not know of the risk of brain injury. Almost two decades ago, the NFL established a Committee to address this very topic. However, it is claimed the Committee spent much of its efforts denying brain injury reports and essentially ignoring a growing body of disturbing evidence to the contrary.

As Massachusetts readers likely know, the developed evidence clearly points to the risk of brain injury from repeated hits to the head, whether in pro football or another endeavor. As this litigation moves forward through the federal judiciary system, the manner in which the issues are decided could have far reaching effects on the way football and other contact sports are played at all levels. While it remains to be seen how these claims will ultimately be decided, some believe a settlement will be reached with former players and renewed efforts will continue to address safety issues at all levels of sport.

Source: pri.org, "NFL faces class action lawsuit from thousands of former players," Feb. 1, 2013

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