Curtis Whitley: NFL Responsible for Former Raider's Death, Lawsuit Claims

Categories: Lawsuit, Sports
curtis-whitley.jpg
Curtis Whitley rookie card.
Retired football players have died young at an alarming rate and each death repeats the question: Exactly how culpable is the NFL?

In May 2008, Curtis Whitley, an offensive lineman who played in the league for six years, died from a reported drug overdose. He was 39, and in the years before he died he had suffered from the mood swings and depression that often signify traumatic brain injury. Earlier this year, Whitley's two children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that the NFL "chose to actively deceive the players and encourage return-to-play prematurely after a concussive event." It is one of more than a dozen lawsuits filed in recent years making this claim.

The suit, which was moved to a federal court in San Francisco this month, charges that the NFL knew about the danger its players faced long before media and public pressure caused it to acknowledge the growing body of research and enact new safety protocols.

"The NFL was aware of the risks of repeated head trauma and multiple concussive events, but nevertheless chose to deliberately ignore and conceal from the players and their families the risks of serious long-term health effect," the complaint states. The NFL "exposed players to dangers they could have avoided had the league provided them with truthful and accurate information."

Scientific research on the longterm effects of sports-related brain trauma picked up steam in the 1970s, but mainly focused on boxing. It wasn't until a Pennsylvania doctor named Bennet Omalu analyzed the brain of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Mike Webster, who had died of a drug overdose, and discovered the existence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, a relative of dementia) that the NFL's concussion protocols began receiving serious scrutiny.

In the 1960s, according to the suit, the NFL "learned that the American National Standards Institute had developed a standard applicable to football helmets to minimize the risk of head injury," but the league did not adopt a policy requiring these standards.

The complaint further alleges that the NFL ignored studies in the '60s and '70s that revealed "the increased risk of concussions, head trauma and brain injury to players as a direct result of the tackling techniques that were then in vogue in the NFL.... Despite this knowledge, until at least 2010, the NFL continued to deny any connection or correlation between players suffering concussions and long-term brain injury or illness."

In response to the lawsuits, Brian Karp, an outside counsel for the NFL, told the New York Times:

"The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to take steps to protect players and to advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions. The NFL has never misled players with respect to the risks associated with playing football. Any suggestion to the contrary has no merit."

Whitley, who payed for the Chargers, Panthers, and Raiders, suffered concussions that were "improperly diagnosed and treated." He "returned to play before it was medically appropriate." Through a guardian, Whitley's children, both minors, are seeking damages.

The suit lists off the many CTE symptoms Whitley showed: "headaches, severe migraine headaches, loss of memory, memory lapses and deficiency, sleeping problems, cervical spine arthritis, dizziness, impulse control problems, suicidal thoughts, depression, bi-polar mood symptoms, anxiety and panic disorder, extreme fatigue and apathy, blurred vision, slurred speech, extreme sensitivity to light and/or irritability."

Hat tip to Courthouse News Service.

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