Five Former Players Sue NFL Players Union Over Concussions

Former defensive lineman Neil Smith (90) is suing the NFLPA over concussions. CREDIT: AP
Former defensive lineman Neil Smith (90) is suing the NFLPA over concussions. CREDIT: AP

Five former players filed a lawsuit against the NFL Players Association last week, asserting that the union did not do enough to protect its members from the dangers of concussions during their careers.

Six-time Pro Bowler Bruce Smith headlines the suit, which also includes Ladell Betts, Christian Ballard, Greg Westerbrooks, and Anthony Davis. The players filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri last Thursday.

According to the Associated Press, the players are seeking financial compensation and better medical monitoring, demands similar to those in the larger lawsuits against the NFL, which reached a preliminary settlement with more than 4,500 former players last month. The NFLPA was not named as a defendant in any of the suits that were consolidated into the major case against the NFL, though its role in the earliest years of football’s concussion crisis has been questioned.

The suit, which names former NFLPA presidents (and players) Kevin Mawae, Troy Vincent, and Trace Armstrong as defendants, asserts that the union failed to act in the best interests of its dues-paying members.

The union has taken steps on concussions in recent years, pushing for stronger protections for players and working to remind them of new guidelines in place. Before the 2013 season, for instance, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sent letters to all of the league’s players reminding them of new concussion rules and the presence of independent concussion evaluators on sidelines. The NFLPA also helped negotiate a new neuro-cognitive benefits plan for former players as part of the new collective bargaining agreement reached in 2011.

But just like the suits against the NFL, the complaint here will focus largely on what the union did or didn’t do in the past, including its role in the oft-criticized Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. The NFL formed that committee in 1994 and used it in part to produce research on concussions, and while the NFLPA was not an original member, it did try to gain “a seat at the table” in 2007, according to ESPN’s Peter Keating. Attorney Paul Anderson, who has tracked the NFL concussion litigation at his blog, has also raised questions about whether the union had information and research about the dangers of concussions, as he told Forbes in 2012. The suit alleges that the union engaged “in a campaign of disinformation designed to dispute accepted and valid research regarding the connection between repetitive head injuries or concussions and degenerative brain disease,” according to the AP.

The lawsuit “erroneously alleges that the NFLPA knowingly and fraudulently concealed from players the risks of head injuries players faced by playing in NFL games and practices over the last several decades. This lawsuit has no merit and we will defend our union and our past Presidents,” the union said in a statement on its website. “The NFLPA has made the health and safety of its members a priority and the advancements in professional football on concussion education, prevention and treatment are a result of our efforts.”