Duerson Family’s NFL Lawsuit Is a Public Concussion Debate Game-Changer

by Irvin Muchnick on February 24, 2012

The family of Dave Duerson, the ex-National Football League star who shot himself to death almost exactly a year ago at age 50, has sued the NFL for its alleged liability for the brain damage he was found to have in the special autopsy he requested in his suicide note.

In recent months, more concussion-linked litigation has been filed by various groups of former players than even the 24/7 NFL Network could possibly cover. They add up to lots of confusing legalistic wrangling by professionals and their professional mouthpieces. The Duerson case is different, though – a bona fide potential game-changer in terms of both the NFL’s exposure and the public’s broader understanding of what I maintain is the bleak future of the sport of football.

In my first commentary on Duerson for Beyond Chron on February 22, 2011, I wrote, “The gruesome decades-long underground American saga that is the football concussion crisis has never gotten in our faces” quite like this. Now the suit filed in Illinois state court by Dave Duerson’s son Tregg, on behalf of the estate, is about to show everyone exactly why.

All civil court actions involve two parties, a plaintiff and a defendant. But in this one we have two institutional bystanders with more than a passing interest. The first is the community of disabled NFLers whose claims were rejected by the Bert Bell / Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan – on whose board Duerson sat, denying the scientific evidence on chronic traumatic encephalopathy even as the disease ate away at his own brain, destroying mood, impulse control, and judgment.

The other spectator-stakeholders are us – all of the rest of us who are trying to sort out this concussion mess for the millions of kids who play football in pee-wee and high school leagues. Some believe the game, which is inherently violent, simply needs rule changes, better protective equipment, and smarter health and safety practices. I am in the camp holding that football concussion reform is oxymoronic, and that the medical, financial, legal, and educational bottom line is tobacco-like age restrictions, which would chop-block the knees out from under the NFL’s $10-billion-a-year global marketing machine.

Duerson case discovery and testimony will subject key theories to empirical tests. As the process plays out, the Duerson family and image themselves will not emerge unscathed. Last year’s suicide got spun as martyrdom because of the decedent’s instructions to donate his brain tissue for research by Boston University’s Center for the Study of CTE. The part about Duerson as a bad guy in his role as a NFL Players Association retirement board trustee got muted. That will no longer be the case, as the NFL’s legal team submits for the court record and magnifies Duerson’s every utterance in his years of denial.

Alan Schwarz of the New York Times is reporting Tregg Duerson’s contention that his father had a private change of heart between 2007 – when he verbally and almost physically confronted other NFL retirees at a Congressional hearing – and his death. A change of some sort is manifest. Its effect on the entire Bell-Rozelle Plan mental-disability claim file, whose reopening and daylighting I have advocated? That is what remains to be seen.

The grim truth is that the most devastating litigation against American football culture, our lay religion, is yet to come, from the parents of youth players who will continue to suffer catastrophic injuries and death, notwithstanding the medicine-wagon “solutions” being hyped by the cottage industries of “concussion awareness.”

If you can’t acknowledge which way the arrows are pointing, then you flunk your baseline neurocognitive test: you’ve been playing football for too long, with or without a helmet.

Irvin Muchnick’s blogs at http://concussioninc.net. The first title in the Concussion Inc. ebook series, DUERSON (November 2011), is available on Amazon Kindle at http://amzn.to/wGbxHd or as a PDF file by sending $1.49 via PayPal to paypal@muchnick.net.

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