Former NFL Tight End Wins Concussion Grievance Case Against Cincinnati Bengals

Ben Utecht (Credit: AP)

A federal arbitrator ruled this week that the Cincinnati Bengals should not have cleared former tight end Ben Utecht to play after he suffered a concussion during a 2009 practice, and that the team had to pay Utecht the remainder of the salary he was owed when the franchise cut him.

The Bengals placed Utecht on injured reserve after he suffered the concussion, but his grievance case against the team argued that he should have undergone more rigorous testing to assess his injury status before they released him. The arbitrator agreed, and in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Utecht said the victory was important not just for him but for NFL players in general.

“The important thing is it is a decision for all players,” Utecht told The Enquirer in a phone interview. “It gives a standard that teams have to fulfill and for anyone that suffers a brain injury and a standard to be rehabilitated. That’s something we have been fighting for our players for 3-4 years now.”

More than 4,000 former players sued the NFL in an ongoing lawsuit that alleges that the NFL purposefully obscured the effects of concussions and their links to long-term brain injuries. Utecht’s victory could affect that, but it will also set a precedent for how teams deal with injured players going forward and former players who felt mistreated in that process in the past. The financial reward isn’t large — since Utecht wasn’t cut until November 2009, he made most of his salary anyway — but the threat of protracted legal battles, financial penalties, and poor public relations could deter teams from taking similar actions in the future.

ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio argued that Utecht’s victory could actually undermine the lawsuit from former players since it would prove the NFL and NFL Players Association had protocols in place to deal with concussions, but I’m not sure that’s the case. The majority of the 4,000 players were injured well before 2009 at times before the NFL had anything resembling those protocols, and that was a time when doctors on the NFL payroll and the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee were still arguing that there was no proven link between concussions and long-term injuries. Even now, the NFL and its teams still employ doctors who have sought to delegitimize those links.

The NFL has bolstered its concussion protocols in recent years. In 2011, it standardized its sideline concussion assessment procedures, and this year, for the first time, independent medical personnel will assist teams in evaluating players suspected of suffering concussions. But even if the Utecht case is evidence that some protocols existed, it isn’t proof that the NFL was doing all it could to protect players from concussions. The league, in fact, still won’t acknowledge that there is a link between concussions and brain injuries. If anything, Utecht might be more proof that the league and its teams weren’t taking the issue seriously even as recently as four years ago.