Tag: brain injury

16 Apr

The NFL’s Billion Dollar Problem

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A year ago, I wrote about a class-action lawsuit filed by former Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien and 125 other former professional football players. That lawsuit alleged that the NFL “deliberately ignored and actively concealed the dangers and risks of repetitive brain injuries and concussions for decades”. Fast forward to last week when the NFL attempted to have 222 consolidated lawsuits (involving one-third of the league’s 12,000 retired players) dismissed. On Tuesday, Judge Anita Brody of Federal District Court heard arguments on whether lawsuits accusing the NFL of glorifying violence should be governed by the legal system or by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The NFL argued that the teams bear primary responsibility for health and safety, along with the players’ union and the players themselves. Simply put, the NFL believes these cases amount to a labour dispute and therefore should be subject to grievance procedures and arbitration.  The lead attorney for the players argued that the NFL glorified and monetized violence through NFL Films, and in doing so, breached its duty of due care. Further, he argued that the league “deliberately and fraudulently” concealed the dangers of head trauma. It will be months before Judge Brody makes a ruling and writes an opinion, and appeals will likely follow. “I will rule when I sort this out for myself” she said after hearing 50 minutes of arguments. And indeed, much sorting lies ahead.  Issues of assumption of risk, contributory negligence and causation are all on the table.


At the end of the day, one of three outcomes will materialize: i) Judge Brody sides with the players, ii) Judge Brody sides with the league or iii) She takes a divide and conquer approach and divvies up which claims move forward in court, and which are dealt with in arbitration. Such a division would separate those who played under a CBA from those who did not (NFL.com reminds us that there was no CBA prior to 1968, and again from 1987-1993).  Regardless of how Judge Brody rules, the NFL is likely going to pay in spades; monetary damages (whether incurred as a result of a settlement offer or as a result of a liability finding) will exceed a billion dollars and the damage to the institution from a public relations perspective cannot be overstated.  The players are also seeking the establishment of an NFL-funded medical monitoring system for former players who may be suffering long-term effects from concussions.

In a strange twist of timing, on Sunday, a jury in Colorado found Riddell Helmets liable for failure to adequately warn players wearing their football helmets about the dangers of potential concussions.  In 2008, while participating in a "machine gun drill", high school football player Rhett Ridolfi sustained a concussion.  Ridolfi’s coaches ignored his complaints about headaches and allowed him to return to practice later that afternoon.  He subsequently collapsed, required emergency brain surgery, and was left paralyzed on one side of his body.  The verdict found the helmet manufacturer responsible for $3.1 million in damages.  Riddell has already expressed their intent to appeal.

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger

06 Dec

Breaking News in the Derek Boogaard Tragedy

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The New York Times reported yesterday that 28-year old pre-eminent NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard did indeed have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his accidental death in May of this year.  Boogaard is now the fourth of four former NHL players examined to show evidence of CTE. 

CTE is a form of progressive, degenerative damage to the brain caused by repetitive closed head injuries (i.e. ‘blows to the head’).  It is characterized by the buildup in the brain of an abnormal protein called tau which tends to form in clumps and disrupt brain function.  Part of Ann McKee’s job is to solicit suitable brains for examination for the presence of CTE.  McKee is the co-director of the Boston University School of Medicine Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, colloquially referred to as the Boston Brain Bank.  Within 24 hours of Boogaard’s death, a phonecall had been placed from the Center to Joanne and Len Boogaard, requesting the brain of their son.  The Boogaard family readily agreed.  Sadly, in the span of time between the donation of the brain and the release of the results of the autopsy, NHL enforcers Rick Rypien and Wade Belak both lost their lives, reportedly due to suicide.  

While the presence of CTE in Boogaard is not unexpected, what did take researchers by surprise was the advanced degree of damage in someone so young.  “To see this amount? That’s a ‘wow’ moment,” McKee reportedly said when she viewed images of Boogaard’s brain tissue.  Had Boogaard lived, he likely would have developed middle-aged dementia as a result of the trauma to his brain. 

The last few years of Boogaard’s life were tragic; blurred by post-concussion syndrome, a descent into alcohol abuse, a dependence on painkilling narcotics like Oxycontin and Percocet, self-neglect, repeated stints in rehab and ultimately, pervasive loneliness.   His legacy, however, will lie in the specter raised by the advanced CTE discovered in his young brain. As the Brain Bank’s census of CTE-positive ex-NHL brains continues to grow, will the NHL change its tune about the link between hockey and CTE?  (According to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman "it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point.")  How will the NHL respond to this news?  How will it respond now to calls to rein in on-ice fighting? 

Let the debate continue.

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger


16 May

A Sudden Influx of Donations to the Brain Bank: The Concussion Discussion Part II

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On Thursday February 17, 2011, in the idyllic-sounding community of Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest. He left behind a suicide note that read: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”

Duerson was 50 years old at the time of his death.

According to Ann McKee, the co-director of the Boston University School of Medicine Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the results of tests on Duerson’s brain revealed “classic pathology of CTE and no evidence of any other disease. He had severe involvement of areas that control judgment, inhibition, impulse control, mood and memory.” In spite of these cognitive deficiencies, it is not a grand leap to infer that Duerson had a great depth of insight into his condition or the arc his disease would follow in the future.


CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a form of progressive, degenerative damage to the brain caused by repetitive closed head injuries (i.e. ‘blows to the head’). It is characterized by the buildup in the brain of an abnormal protein called tau which tends to form in clumps and disrupt brain function. CTE first came to public light after it was identified in the brain tissue of former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters after his suicide in 2006.  The CSTE Brain Bank was established in 2008 for the sole purpose of collecting and studying post-mortem brains, because there is no medical test that can detect CTE in a living person.  The Brain Bank ultimately hopes to answer some of the critical questions about CTE.  How many concussions does it take to cause CTE? Is CTE time-dependent? –  is it the number of years of repeated blows that will determine who gets CTE and who doesn’t?  In 2009, McKee published a study indicating that of the 51 confirmed cases of CTE at the time, 90% of the cases occurred in athletes.  If you have 10 minutes to spare today, watch this TIME video called "This is Your Brain on Football" in which McKee is featured.

Last Friday, 28 year old New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment. While details regarding the specific circumstances surrounding his death have been few, it spoke volumes that within 24 hours, Boogaard’s family had stepped forward to donate his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine.  

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger

* image courtesy of Microsoft


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