PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Retired NFL players say the league "turned a blind eye" for the last four decades as coaches encouraged them to use helmets as on-field weapons, a practice geared toward "keeping its fan base excited and interested in the violence of this sport."
In addition to negligently condoning the use of the helmet as an "offensive weapon" to "block, tackle, butt, spear, ram and/or injure opposing players by hitting with their helmeted heads," the National Football League conspired to conceal clear evidence that their passive approach to helmet use and concussions resulted in severe long-term damage to its gridiron gladiators, according to the federal class action filed Wednesday.
The NFL conspired with independent contractors and "team members" to "continuously discount and reject the causal connection between multiple concussions suffered while playing in the NFL, a non-scientific return-to-play policy for players suffering concussions and the chronic long term effects of these injuries," the retired players claim.
Seven former players are named in the lawsuit, saying they have "or will in the future" suffer a concussion-related brain injury or illness. They want the league to bankroll a medical-monitoring regime for former and current players who have suffered an on-field concussion that may cause them to develop a brain illness such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia or encephalopathy.
Despite being the paramount football league on the planet, the NFL has lagged far behind lower-level leagues in implanting concussion-related safety measures, the suit says.
The NFL knew in the 1970s that the NCAA and National High School Football Federations (NHSFF) had adopted a policy requiring all helmets to comply with a standard created by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
"The NFL did not make or adopt a similar policy at that time," according to he 20-page complaint.
In 1976, NCAA and NHSFF rule-makers "initiated changes which prohibited initial contact of the head in blocking and tackling."
"While the NFL was aware of these changes in the rules and this risk of harm, it failed to take similar action," according to the suit.
The NFL in 1979 promulgated a rule penalizing players "found to have used their helmets to butt, spear or ram an opponent with the crown or top of the helmet," but the rule "fell far short of the important safety and injury prevention action that should have been taken" and "ignored the more prevalent practices in the NFL that was [sic] directly causing a substantial and high rate of concussions amongst NFL players," according to the suit.
During the 1970s, '80s and '90s, "players in the NFL were being coached, trained and motivated to use all portions of their helmets to block, tackle, butt, spear, ram and/or injure opposing players by hitting with their helmeted heads," according to the suit.
Though the NFL knew that such tactics increased the concussion rate for players, the tactics weren't "significantly condemned" by the league, the suit states.
"Further, even after the NFL approved a rule change in 1989 to provide referees with the authority to eject a player who is observed using his helmet in this fashion, the NFL did not insist on the strict enforcement of this rule because of the defendant's interest in keeping its fan base excited over the visual excitement generated by such techniques," the retired players say.
When the league finally made hitting with a helmet a personal foul and a fineable offense in 1996, "its purpose was not to protect the player using the helmet but rather to protect quarterbacks," according to the suit.
Until Aug. 4, when the league signed its collective-bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, "the defendant has continued to deny any connection or correlation between players suffering concussions and long-term chronic brain injury or illness," the suit states.
What's worse, the retired players and their wives say, is that the league actively concealed the causative connection between on-field concussions and brain injury.
In September 2009, the NFL disputed the results of its own study, which found that over 6 percent of retired players aged 50 and above experienced memory-related illnesses compared to 1.2 percent for comparably aged American men, according to the suit.
"The defendant's agents disputed these findings and continued the mantra in the press that there is no evidence connecting concussions, concussion like symptoms, NFL football and long-term brain illness or injury," according to the suit.
But the NFL didn't merely fail to prevent on-field concussions. It "failed to take reasonable steps to develop appropriate and necessary guidelines to recognize, diagnose and treat players with concussions," and it failed to develop a satisfactory "return-to-play" policy that would keep concussed players off the field until they could safely return, the suit says.
NFL Vice President Brian McCarthy said the league had not seen the complaint, "but would vigorously contest any claims of this kind."
This is the latest in a string of lawsuits springing from the NFL's decades-long, and now widely discredited, attempts to brush off concerns about long-term traumatic brain injury from repeated concussions.
The former players named in this case are: Charles Ray Easterling, Wayne Radloff, James McMahon, Joseph Thomas, Gerald Feehery, Steve Kiner and Michael Furrey.
They are represented by Larry Coben with Anapol Schwartz.