When Kevin Turner retired from professional football in January 2000 after five seasons as a fullback with the Philadelphia Eagles, the letdown was steeper than he expected.
“I just turned into a loser overnight and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” Turner, 42, told reporters. “It was a very scary proposition.” Turner’s tally of ailments grew until August 2010 when doctors told him he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable, devastating neurological disease that killed baseball great Lou Gehrig. As he began coping with the disease, Turner said, he learned of a half-dozen other former NFL players who had ALS.
“I look at all of these guys and see the positions they play,” Turner said. “I know what they do. I’m not a scientist and I’m certainly no genius but I know two and two make four.”
Turner joined Mary Ann Easterling, widow of former Atlanta Falcon safety Ray Easterling, to announce the filing in Philadelphia of the “master complaint” covering thousands of former players who say they have debilitating brain disease because the National Football League concealed the risks of repetitive brain concussions.
“Let’s face it and be honest,” Turner said in a news teleconference with lawyers. “I feel like the NFL has over the past couple of decades, or at least until ’08 or ’09, kind of turned a blind eye to the seriousness of . . . concussive hits.”
Ray Easterling, 62, despondent about his rapidly progressing dementia and the prospect of institutionalized care, committed suicide April 19. “I firmly believe the NFL could have and should have done more to protect Ray,” said Mary Ann Easterling, who broke down describing his post-career decline. “Life with him in the first part of our marriage was wonderful,” Easterling said. “It was like a light went off, a switch was flipped. He no longer enjoyed being around his family or doing the things he once enjoyed.”
The Easterlings’ lawsuit was the first, filed in federal court in Philadelphia last August on behalf of them. They were joined by six other players including former Eagles quarterback Jim McMahon, and four spouses.
The suit, which seeks NFL-funded medical monitoring for former players, has been consolidated with more than 80 others filed nationwide for more than 2,000 ex-players in a proposed class action before U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody.
Long after the heady days of professional football and cheering fans, many ex-NFL players are finding themselves crippled by neurological problems that took years to develop and that prevent them from earning a living.
The lawsuit comes after several years of researchers’ warning coaches from elementary school up that there is no such thing as a mild concussion and that they require medical care and enforced rest.
Most recently, the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences reported the sobering results of a study of the brains of 100 current and former NFL players that concluded “playing professional football is associated with a significantly higher risk for permanent brain damage.”
The study was authored by seven scientists, including Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Daniel Amen of the Amen Clinics Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif.
Each player – average age 57 – was interviewed about medical history, and underwent computerized brain imaging exams and screening tests for cognitive functioning.
The brain images showed significant decreases in blood flow across the brain “consistent with the lasting effect of traumatic brain injury.”
The cognitive functioning tests showed 4.5 percent of the players under 50 tested in the abnormal range, compared with 0.1 percent of general population. By age 74, the study found, 100 percent of players had abnormal scores.
Dave Duerson, 50, a defensive back with the Chicago Bears 1985 Super Bowl champion team, killed himself Feb. 17, 2011. Two weeks after Easterling’s suicide, on May 2, Junior Seau, 43, a former star linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, killed himself.
NFL lawyers have declined comment on the lawsuits. The league says in court filings that the suits should be dismissed because they are preempted under federal labor law by the players’ collecting-bargaining agreement.
The NFL contends that the agreement governs player safety, medical care and “return-to-play” decisions on injured players. The league also says the contract mandates arbitration to resolve player disputes and bars players from suing the NFL.
The players’ lawsuits contend that NFL officials knew since the 1970s that multiple concussions were associated with a greater risk of future brain damage and dementia. Nevertheless, the suit continues, the NFL “turned a blind eye” to players being coached to use their helmeted heads to block, tackle, butt and spear opposing players. The NFL’s motive: to keep the “fan base excited and interested in the violence of this sport,” the suit says.
The suit cites a 2009 scientific study that the NFL commissioned – and later disputed – that found 6.1 percent of retired NFL players over 50 had been diagnosed with dementia or other serious memory problems compared with 1.2 percent of all U.S. men in the same age group.