Traumatic Brain Injury and the NFL

News of the recent and unexpected death of Junior Seau, 43-year-old former Pro Bowl linebacker, has once again raised questions regarding the long-term impact of traumatic brain injuries in the National Football League. While details of this tragic story are still being sorted out, many are asking if Seau’s former head injuries could have contributed to his apparent suicide.

Ray Easterling, 62-year old former safety for the Atlanta Falcons, died just last month of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Easterling was a litigant in the lawsuit again the NFL was the most recent former football player to commit suicide prior to Seau. The suit contends the NFL did not adequately treat players when they sustained a concussion and then, for years, tried to cover up the association between brain injuries and football.

In addition to other N.F.L. players who have committed suicide, Easterling had been experiencing symptoms that can most likely be contributed to a traumatic brain injury. Some of these symptoms include; headaches, migraine-like headaches, dizziness, insomnia, depression, moodiness, and memory problems. Easterling’s wife and friends noticed he began to show signs of dementia as many as 20 years ago and was diagnosed with it in 2011. Other players who have ended their lives too soon are Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers Terry Long and Andre Waters of the Philadelphia Eagles. These players all had two things in common; they sustained TBI’s and their brains showed signs of trauma. Duerson left a note for his brain to be donated to Boston University, a leader in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research, where they discovered he did suffer from CTE.

The number of lawsuits and plaintiffs against the NFL continues to grow; it now contains over 1,000 players. The players believe the NFL knew vital information about concussion/ TBI’s and deliberately withheld it. The suit goes on to say the NFL “continuously and vehemently denied that it knew, should have known or believed that there is any relationship between NFL players suffering concussions while playing….and long-term problems such as headaches, dizziness, dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease that many retired players have experienced.”

Life has been difficult for these players and families since these players retired. They have suffered great personal and financial loss; marriages have ended, businesses have failed and some are losing their homes. With the death of Easterling, some lawyers involved in the legal proceedings are concerned that more players will die or become too ill to testify. Gene Locks, an attorney representing the players said at a meeting in federal court last week; “As you know, Mr. Easterling committed suicide last week. There are other seriously injured players whose testimony should be preserved as soon as possible.”

Mrs. Easterling has said that she will continue to pursue the lawsuit and encourage the NFL to take a more proactive role in helping retired players and wants to see a fund set up for players who have suffered a TBI during their NFL career. Hopefully the NFL will continue to make appropriate changes in the game before too many more athletes are permanently damaged.

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