American Football: Law gets to grips with traumatic injuries suffered by players

Aftermath of catastrophic injuries compels lawyers to take note of developments

Head-to-head: football collisions are consistent with numerous hits to the head which in turn cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Photograph: Getty Images

Head-to-head: football collisions are consistent with numerous hits to the head which in turn cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Photograph: Getty Images


The revelations that hits to the head may lead to long-term brain damage have rocked the American football world, alarming coaches, players and their parents and forcing the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to tighten safety standards.

Given the consequences of the injuries, lawyers, too, have taken note, including those representing the 5,000 retired players who sued the NFL over claims that the league hid the dangers of concussions.

The notoriety of that case also prompted George Washington University’s law school to start what it said was the first course devoted to the legal implications of traumatic brain injuries.

The weekly seminar addresses brain injuries of all sorts, including those suffered in car accidents and in falls. But the concussion crisis gripping the NFL is what caught the law school’s attention. “We look for areas of the law that need attention,” said Gregory Maggs, the interim dean of the school, which offers about six classes and seminars on healthcare-related topics.

‘Constant battle’
The course is taught by Michael Kaplen, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who has worked on cases involving traumatic brain injuries for more than

20 years. He says he has found that many universities, companies, health care providers and courts are inadequately prepared to deal with people with brain injuries, putting the onus on lawyers to find solutions.

“It’s a constant battle that really defaults every step of the way to the legal profession to handle on behalf of the millions of people who get injured,” Kaplen told his students.

Given the popularity of football and the coverage of concussions the financial and health ramifications were too hard to ignore.

“There’s no doubt this is a hot topic,” said Mason P Ashe, a sports lawyer who teaches at Georgetown. “It makes sense from a medical standpoint for there to be a class dedicated to it.”

After weeks of reviewing the fundamentals, Kaplen spent an entire class last month on concussions in football and other sports. He rifled through an 86-slide PowerPoint presentation that noted that concussions sustained in sports were different from others because the players often hid them and felt pressure to continue playing. Athletes who do not properly heal are also susceptible to catastrophic brain swelling from a second concussion.

The number of concussions is vastly underreported, said Kaplen. “We are really facing a public health crisis,” he said. Kaplen addressed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disease caused by numerous hits to the head that has been discovered in former athletes during autopsies.

‘Catch-22’ circumstance
The students also discussed the Lystedt Law, which requires athletes suspected of concussions be removed from a game and not allowed to return until a doctor clears them.

The law raised questions about who was qualified to identify head injuries and about the Catch-22 that coaches and leagues face when it comes to players’ health, said Kaplen. Some leagues claim that they are not responsible for the health of their players; those that do become liable.

“Sports associations take the easy way out: They claim to only schedule games and no more,” said Kaplen. But, he added, “once you start doing something, you better do it right”. During the last half-hour of the class, Kaplen left no doubt about what he thought of the NFL on this: the league became liable once it began studying concussions two decades ago.

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