Five former Kansas City Chiefs players who were on the team between 1987 and 1993 have filed a lawsuit claiming the team hid and even lied about the risks of head injuries during that time period when there was no collective bargaining agreement in place in the NFL.
The lawsuit was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court on behalf of former players Leonard Griffin, Chris Martin, Joe Phillips, Alexander Louis Cooper and Kevin Porter, all of whom played on defense. It seeks more than $15,000 in actual and punitive damages. All five players have opted out of a multimillion-dollar settlement announced this summer that would compensate former players for their head injuries.
The Kansas City plaintiffs claim to be suffering from post-concussion syndrome and latent brain disease because of multiple concussions they sustained while playing for the Chiefs. They all claim also to be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can only be definitively diagnosed by examining the brain after death.
Martin, a Kansas City resident who played linebacker for the Chiefs from 1988 to 1993, said at a news conference he didn’t know that continuing to play in games after sustaining a head injury would cause permanent damage.
“I would have liked to have the opportunity to know that going back on the field would cause me to have severe disabilities later in life,” he said. “I didn’t know that. That’s what the lawsuit is about.”
Chiefs spokesman Ted Crews and NFL spokesman Greg Aiello both declined to comment on the suit.
Hours after Martin talked about his brain injuries, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s wife, Jane, and the wives of former NFL players Howie Long and Mike Golic led a discussion with hundreds of mothers about why they should let their children play football.
As part of the safety clinic at the Chiefs’ training facility, roughly 200 women of all ages took part in drills designed to teach them proper tackling techniques. Nearly a dozen former Chiefs, including Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Bell, walked the giddy moms through the drills.
Roger Goodell and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt also addressed the women, but did not bring up the lawsuit. They were not available to answer questions from the media.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Ken McClain called the proposed $765 million settlement between the NFL and former players insignificant and said it provides compensation only to the former players with the most severe brain injuries.
None of the five plaintiffs will get monetary compensation under that deal, he said.
“All they’re going to be is monitored over time, but no relief will be offered to them,” McClain said. “It’s really a very small amount of money if you do the math. It’s paid out over 20 years, it’s $765 million total. It’s a little under $20 million a year the teams are contributing to these very severely injured people. It’s not very much money.”
It wasn’t known whether similar lawsuits might be filed in other states, given the nation’s patchwork workers’ compensation laws. McClain said Missouri presented a “unique opportunity” because a state workers’ comp statute was amended in 2005 to exclude cases of occupational injury that occur over an extended time.
That exception more commonly applies in workplaces where smoking is allowed and workers suffer lung problems because of it. McClain also represented workers at a Jasper popcorn plant who were awarded millions of dollars in lawsuits claiming they got cancer because of a chemical in butter flavoring used at the plant.
The lawsuit says the Chiefs ignored decades of research indicating that concussions cause long-term brain damage, instead referring to the injuries as “getting your bell rung” or a “ding.” It accuses the team of lying to players in saying concussions are not serious injuries.
“Every time I would get a head injury I would stay in or come to the side and get smelling salts and go back in,” Martin said. “The pressure was there. If you were first team, you got all the reps.”
McClain said the notion that CTE can be diagnosed only through a post-mortem examination is outdated.
“That’s an old position,” he said. “Most of the neurologists we’ve been in discussion with believe most if not all professional football players do have CTE to some degree or another.”
Fellow plaintiffs’ attorney Dirk Vandever cited a recent UCLA study in which researchers said they were able to correlate some of the clinical problems they found and conclude they likely represent CTE.
“After you see 19 out of 20 brains autopsied have CTE, as well as the ongoing widespread nature of the injury to players, doctors are fairly able to conclude players, based upon their symptomology, do or do not have the disease,” Vandever said.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other athletes who suffered concussions have been diagnosed after their deaths with CTE, including Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, who both committed suicide.
In August, the NFL agreed to settle lawsuits filed by more than 4,500 former players who developed dementia or other concussion-related health problems they say were caused by playing football. The settlement, subject to approval by a federal judge in Philadelphia, would apply to all past NFL players and spouses of those who are deceased.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say individual payouts would be capped at $5 million for men with Alzheimer’s disease; $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy; and $3 million for players with dementia.
About 19,000 retired players would be eligible to seek awards or medical testing, but current players are not part of the deal. The settlement does not include an admission from the NFL that it hid information from players about head injuries.
At the time, the settlement announcement appeared to remove a major legal and financial threat hanging over the NFL. But if too many former players opt out, the deal could fall apart.