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OTL report overstates the relevance of NFL disability awards


It’s been a rough year for ESPN’s Outside the Lines. From the Bernie Fine fiasco or the Mickey Loomis wiretap witch hunt, Bristol’s investigative unit has been doing plenty of swinging -- and plenty of missing.

Friday’s supposed bombshell in the concussion cases against the NFL, while not erroneous in its factual content, makes an illogical leap in interpretation. Specifically, cases from the NFL’s disability board in which benefits were paid to former players for long-term health consequences are being characterized by ESPN as the “smoking gun” in the concussion litigation brought by former players.

As the argument goes, if the NFL’s disability board was willing to conclude that the late Mike Webster’s brain trauma came from playing football in 1999, the NFL should have at that point been sharing with the players warnings regarding the potential long-term risks of playing football.

Apart from the fact that the information has been well known for years and the NFL’s disability board is independent from the league, the fact that the board consists of representatives from both the NFL and the NFLPA underscores the fact that the players’ union (i.e., the players themselves) had an integral role in the development of knowledge and/or the alleged concealment of it from players.

Even though the former players who are suing the league have opted not to sue the union, the absence of the union as a party to the case eventually will be used against the plaintiffs in the concussions cases. Before that argument becomes relevant, however, a judge will have to find that the labor deal allows these cases to be pursued in court. The NFL has argued that the claims must be pursued via the avenues available under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

For now, the findings of the NFL’s disability board have no bearing on the concussion lawsuits. If they ever do, the “smoking gun” will shoot both ways, with the outcome showing that both the NFL and the NFLPA knew that concussions created potential long-term problems. And if the NFLPA (i.e., the players) had that information, there was no need for the NFL to issue any warnings to the players (i.e., the NFLPA).