Earlier today, former Denver Broncos’ quarterback Craig Morton filed a lawsuit against the NFL, alleging the league repressed information about the dangers of playing football, and is therefore liable for the crippling post-concussive disorders he suffers today. Heavy.com reached out to his attorney Jon King, and obtained a copy of the written complaint. Here’s what you should know:
1. The NFL Announced a $765 million Settlement With Thousands of Players in August
Just before the start of the 2013 season, the league announced a proposed settlement with over 4,500 former players in the amount of $765 million, or about $170,000 per player.
However, that settlement still needs to be approved by a federal judge, and was met with considerable backlash from both players and fans, who felt a league that rakes in around $10 billion a year could afford to compensate its disabled former players more generously.
Under the terms of the settlement, the NFL wasn’t forced to admit any wrongdoing. Observers expect the NFL to seek immunity from future concussion lawsuits in the final settlement.
According to Morton’s attorney Jon King, the most critical problem with the present settlement is that it was reached prior to discovery. Discovery is the process by which all evidence relevant to a given complaint is collected, documents are gathered, and depositions taken. King explained to Heavy the significance of discovery:
“In most cases, when you get your hands on the evidence, the value of the case goes up. Which I think is why the NFL wanted to keep that from happening.”
2.The Lawsuit Claims the League Knew the Impacts of Concussive Hits Decades Ago
The complaint asserts that the NFL had access to medical literature dating all the way back to 1928 which demonstrated “a scientifically observed link between repetitive blows to the head and neuro-cognitive problems.”
While those earliest studies were focused principally on the neuro-cognitive impacts of boxing, the complaint alleges that by the 1950’s and 60’s “a substantial body of medical and scientific evidence had been developed specifically relating to neuro-cognitive injuries in the sport of football.”
The complaint goes on to allege that the NFL “ignored, minimized, disputed, and actively suppressed broader awareness of the link between sub-concussive and concussive injuries in football and the chronic neuro-cognitive damage, illnesses, and decline suffered by former players,” while also exacerbating the health risk to players by “promoting the game’s violence and lauding players for returning to play despite being rendered unconscious and/or disoriented due to their exposure to sub-concussive and concussive forces.”
In its early days, professional football was nowhere near the economic juggernaut it is today, and King believes the suppression of medical science throughout the 60’s and 70’s was likely motivated by a real fear that the game might not survive such revelations.
3. Morton Played 18 Seasons in the NFL
Craig Morton played for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Denver Broncos in the course of an 18 year NFL Career. For context, the average NFL career in the present day is about three and a half years long.
Over those 18 seaons, Morton was sacked 373 times. In fact, Morton was actually the inspiration for the term “sack”. In a colorful bit of exposition at the beginning of Morton’s complaint, we are told the story of how legendary Redskins coach George Allen inadvertently coined the term while offering his squad a motivational pun, telling his defense the night before a game with Morton’s Cowboys: “Before we play those Dallas Cowboys, we’re going to take that Morton salt and put him into a sack.” Defensive End Deacon Jones took to the phrase, which went on to replace the considerably clunkier “quarterback tackled for a loss.”
Morton is one of only two quarterbacks, (the other being Kurt Warner), to play in a Super Bowl twice, with two different franchises, first with the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, then with the Broncos in Super Bowl XII. Morton lost on both occasions.
In October of 2013, Morton told the Denver Post:
“I don’t know if I ever was diagnosed with a concussion, because you had never heard of it. You just went back. You’d see stars, but if I could get up and get back to the huddle, I played.”
4. This Lawsuit Stems From a Separate Case Against NFL Films
King and his co-attorney Bob Stein, who is himself a former NFL player, were already involved in a long running lawsuit against NFL Films, on behalf of former players who believe they are entitled to royalties for the NFL’s promotional use of their old highlights.
For those players suffering from post-concussive symptoms, King says there is a cruel irony in seeing their injuries glorified, concussive hits immortalized as advertisements for a game that cost them their mental health.
King and Stein were already in contact with Morton as part of the NFL Films lawsuit, and had been locked in a kind of “holding pattern”, waiting to see if a reasonable settlement would be reached without their taking further legal action. But they feel they’ve run out of time for patience. King explains:
“A lot of our players are aging. Like the average American population, they’re relying on Medicare and Social Security to make ends meet. They’re very concerned about sticking their family members with medical bills. When a lot of these guys played, the money wasn’t like it is now. They had to take jobs in the off season. There’s no NFL riches to be living off. They need help now.”
5. Some Worry Concussion Crisis Could Be Fatal For Football
In a Grantland post published right after the Super Bowl this past February, economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier tried to imagine what the “End of Football” might look like. The most plausible route to extinction depends on the success of lawsuits like Morton’s. Presently, the number of concussions sustained by precollegiate football players is estimated at more than 90, 000. The economists write:
“If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society.”
In this scenario, it wouldn’t matter that the payouts from the lawsuits are a fraction of the income the league takes in. The lawsuits would not end the sport by themselves. Rather, the lawsuits could inspire a “contagion effect” in which parents turn their children away from the game, inspiring others to follow suit, until the nation’s best athletic talent is funneled into other sports.
According to King, the players he works with still love the game and value their time playing it. King emphasized that he believes the game is in a much better place today than it was when his clients were on the field. He believes the game can survive.
But concussions are caused principally by sudden changes in momentum, which means no change in helmet technology can fix the underlying problem: Tackle football does terrible damage to human brains.
The full text of the complaint is available below: