LONG-TERM BRAIN DAMAGE AT HEART OF HUGE NFL LAWSUIT Series: YSTERIES OF THE MIND: CHRONIC TRAUMATIC ENCEPHALOPATHY

Article excerpt

The massive legal action brought by former players against the National Football League has been known as a concussion lawsuit.

But make no mistake, experts say. The brain degeneration known as CTE is at the heart of the civil suits by more than 5,000 former players and surviving family members that are now pending in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

Bob Fitzsimmons, a Wheeling, W.Va., lawyer who helped found the Pittsburgh-based Brain Injury Research Institute to study the disorder, said that "whether you call it CTE or permanent damage to the brain, it's a key factor in the proceedings."

"If a person had a concussion and they had no residual damage, in my opinion, why are they involved in the lawsuit? You had your concussion, you're healed, you're OK. I think it's the risk of development of permanent damage" that is the key issue for many former players.

The significance of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is reflected in the formal language of the complaint.

"The NFL defendants have known or should have known for many years," the complaint says, "that neuropathology studies, brain imaging tests, and neuropsychological tests on many former football players have established that ... players who sustain repetitive head impacts ... have suffered and continue to suffer brain injuries that result in any one or more of the following conditions: early- onset of Alzheimer's Disease, dementia, depression, deficits in cognitive functioning, reduced processing speed, attention and reasoning, loss of memory, sleeplessness, mood swings, personality changes, and the debilitating and latent disease known as" CTE.

CTE also is implicated in the suicides of several of the plaintiffs, including former linebacker Junior Seau and former defensive backs David Duerson, Ray Easterling and Andre Waters. In an unusual pattern, Seau, Duerson and Easterling shot themselves in the chest, and both Duerson and Easterling left suicide notes asking that their brains be donated for study.

While those cases are especially emotional, CTE's impact on potential damage awards in the lawsuit will be even more important for the players who will go on living for years and may need long- term medical and daily living assistance.

Right now, both sides are waiting for a critical ruling by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody on the league's argument that all health and safety issues, including head injuries, are covered under the league's collective bargaining agreement with the players association.

If she agrees, it would shift the cases to individual arbitration by each team.

If she rejects that argument, the high-powered lawyers on each side will begin arguments on three critical issues.

First, how much did the NFL know about the risk of brain injuries from playing the game, and for how long?

Second, did the players contribute to the problem by concealing concussions or lobbying to return to play too soon?

And third, if the league knew or should have known about the risks, how big should the monetary damages be?

That last issue will be heavily shaped by the research on CTE and whether there is a direct connection between head trauma and the protein deposits associated with the disorder.

If the court does decide that head injuries lead to CTE, it could escalate potential damages by millions of dollars by requiring long- term monitoring and care of former players.

Some brain experts, including those advising the NFL, have cast doubt on the link between blows to the head and CTE, while others who are studying the disorder say there is no other reasonable explanation. …