NFL’s “Legacy Fund” For Disabled Retirees Just a Down Payment on National Concussion Costs

by Irvin Muchnick on July 18, 2011

According to reliable reports, National Football League owners and players are very close to a deal that will save the 2011 season. (This piece was filed over the weekend; there could even be a preliminary settlement announcement by the time my words are published Monday morning.)

One of the last hang-ups of a lockout-averting agreement is a provision being referred to as the “Legacy Fund” – a negotiated siphoning off of a portion of the NFL’s $9 billion in annual revenues to cover more fully the disability claims of retired players who suffer from crippling orthopedic injuries or brain trauma. Let’s focus on the latter. The category going by the useful shorthand “concussions” not only shortens quantity and maims quality of life, but also defines the problem in terms over and above the interests of management, players, and even professional retirees.

Bully for Hall of Famer Carl Eller and the other named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit if they have been able to gain a seat at the collective-bargaining table alongside the NFL and the temporarily decertified NFL Players Association – or at least created pressure for more comprehensive benefits to offset the nearly bottomless pit of sob stories that are the fallout of mass entertainment.

But I also say: Who’s speaking for the rest of us? These include kids who should not have been playing tackle football at all in peewee and high school programs before their informed consent could be secured and their risks of lifelong disability from concussions and repetitive subconcussive head blows could be properly processed.

On the larger canvas, they also include a society that, when all is said is done, will have manifested lower academic achievement and workforce productivity, and increased violent crime, all as a consequence of America’s brilliantly marketed football obsession.

To concede that not every F in Calculus, not every underperforming worker, and not every rape is caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is not the same thing as agreeing that pro football has no significant material hand in the decline of gross national mental health. Or that the NFL’s management of the issue over the last generation has been anything other than shameful and culpable.

For fractions of pennies on the dollar, the league funded and cooked the books on CTE research, until a cluster of Pittsburgh Steelers died young and strangely, coming to the attention of a renegade forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu – who got ostracized by the NFL doctors’ old-boys network for his trouble.

The range of hucksterism of one of those doctors, the Steelers’ Joseph Maroon, extends to World Wrestling Entertainment and a “concussion management system,” ImPACT, which he and his University of Pittsburgh Medical Center colleagues peddle to professional and amateur sports organizations worldwide. In part to divert examination of the league’s accountability for a national health crisis, the NFL has helped lobby for state legislation requiring public high schools to improve “awareness” and to cover their liability asses by buying this mostly useless software. The tally of states passing such legislation is now at 23, according to the valuable “Concussion Blog” operated by Dustin Fink, an Illinois high school athletic trainer (http://theconcussionblog.com).

My own blog has reported on studies exposing ImPACT’s high false-negative rate and on the way savvy athletes and their handlers can manipulate its “baseline testing,” sometimes with drugs like Ritalin. But the New York Times has remained silent on this subject; apparently it would prefer to deliver the goods on how American ingenuity is being directed toward development of the better football helmet – concussion entrepreneurs’ answer to the better mousetrap.

In 2007 WWE’s Chris Benoit, one of the straightest arrows in his peculiar industry, went nuts and murdered his wife and son before killing himself. Of course that was “just” wrestling. Will it take a Manning or a Brady – rather than a Mike Webster or a Chris Henry or even a Dave Duerson – before football fans and sponsors take the sports brain injury pandemic seriously?

The NFL lockout may soon be over. But the NFL lockout of the American mind? Not a chance.

Beyond Chron contributor Irvin Muchnick has launched the new website and blog “Concussion Inc.” (http://concussioninc.net). You can also find Irv on Twitter at http://twitter.com/irvmuch.

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