By Paul Gardner
Sixteen years ago, in this column, I drew the attention of our soccer bosses to the growing problems surrounding concussion injuries and the inevitability -- should those same bosses not address the issue -- of serious legal complications.
Over these past 16 years, we have learned a good deal more about the dangers of concussion, which has now become a major topic of concern for all sports. In particular, football has come under heavy criticism -- for allowing a level of violence that almost ensures concussion injuries, for hiding the dangers of brain injury while profiting from the sport's violence, and for not taking measures to counter the problem.
Soccer should have been thinking along those lines right from the start. As the only sport, I think, that deliberately allows -- encourages? -- the use of the head to make contact with the ball, how could it ever have expected to escape censure?
Yet my impression, back in 1997, was that soccer wasn’t that concerned. I found it difficult to find a medical expert on the possible problems caused by heading, and the studies that had been done were small and clearly inadequate. FIFA maintained that there was no problem. Complacency hung heavily over the topic.
As the evidence mounted of the serious brain damage that could result from even apparently mild concussions, disquiet and then something approaching panic took hold of football. Deaths -- especially those in high school football -- could not be explained away. Then, inevitably, the legal guys moved in. By 2010, a huge class-action case against the NFL was filed -- it accused the NFL, basically, of failing to do anything to abate the growing concussion problem and of failing to inform its players of the dangers they were facing. The number of ex-players represented in the lawsuit was a staggering 4,500.
As the most serious of the concussion-effects were things like brain damage and suicide, a billion-dollar settlement seemed possible. But the case did not go to court. It has been settled by a mediator. On Thursday we got the figures. The NFL will pay $765 million. Averaged out, that comes to about $170,000 a player. Satisfactory, one would have thought, only to anyone who hasn’t seen a serious medical bill lately.
The NFL has escaped what would no doubt have been a lengthy and revealing lawsuit. It has agreed to establish a $10 million research fund, something it should have done decades ago.
As the settlement has been agreed by both sides, it will presumably be approved by the U.S. District Court judge involved. But it is the almost derisory amount of compensation that jolts.
Soccer, no doubt at last paying careful attention to the NFL’s concussion problems, can afford a wry smile over this one. On a much smaller scale, legal action has arrived on the doorstep of MLS, with the case brought by Bryan Namoff against his former club D.C. United. The case concerns a concussion that Namoff received in 2009 and that he claims was negligently treated by D.C. United. But he is asking for $12 million damages, which looks like a much more realistic figure than the $170,000 payout by the NFL.
Namoff is suing D.C. United, not MLS. This is an odd one, because, under the league’s single-entity structure, it is MLS, not D.C. United, that holds Namoff’s contract, and that pays him. In 2011, MLS did begin to take measures to promote awareness of the seriousness of the concussion problem.
So, for the moment, with the NFL suit not going to trial, and with Namoff’s case still to be heard, the responsibility of leagues and clubs has not been legally defined. There remains another angle of the problem that has yet to receive a full hearing -- that of protective equipment.
At issue are accusations that equipment manufacturers make unproven claims for the effectiveness and safety of their products. A lawsuit against the manufacturer of football helmets is pending -- one that could have a major effect on the sport should it go against the manufacturers.
Soccer’s problems with concussion -- which include the issue of protective headware -- are not going to go away. How can they, when head-butting the ball is written into the rules, thus making ugly and frequently violent head-to-head clashes an integral part of the game?