Twenty-Six Florida Football Players Sue the NFL for Concussion-Related Workers' Comp

Florida is a hotbed for football talent, young and old. Many of Miami's high schools are basically factories for college football programs and, by proxy, the National Football League. When players retire, many of them choose to buy mansions on the South Florida coast.

And because the state is crammed with retired NFL players, it's a mecca for both football-related wealth and injuries.

Case in point: This past Monday, 26 retired Florida football players sued the NFL and demanded the league give them workers' compensation. The players say the league hid the fact that repeated concussions cause a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in which a person's brain wastes away until he or she dies. In all, 141 retired players filed suit, but only 38 are named.

In the suit, the players compare the NFL to a group of tobacco executives, desperately shoving bad information under the rug as increasingly frightening concussion science came to light.

The NFL "routinely failed to care for Plaintiffs’ repetitive head injuries during their careers in any medically competent or meaningful manner that complied with any known published contact sports return-to-play guidelines at the time in which the injuries occurred," the suit says.

Studies show players who live through multiple concussions and blows to the head often develop a fatal disease in which the brain wastes away, causing severe memory loss and confusion. Multiple investigations have shown the NFL knowingly hid the risk of CTE from its players, and in 2015, the NFL agreed to pay retirees more than $1 billion for CTE-related medical claims. But players say that since that decision came down, science has shown the NFL should be taking care of even more players.

"Scientific verification of CTE in living subjects is currently available, and is no different from ALS diagnosis probabilities," the suit says. "Essentially, living-CTE has now become clinically diagnosable to the same extent that living-ALS has become recognized as being clinically diagnosable." As such, the suit says, the players deserve workers' compensation for the sustained, repeated, and unavoidable hits to the head they received on the field.

Of the 26 South Florida natives named in the suit, a few stand out: Miamian Tony Gaiter, who played for the New England Patriots, is the suit's lead plaintiff. Retired Detroit Lions running back Sedrick Irvin, who played high-school football at both Miami Southridge High School and Miami High, is also named.

Among many others, the suit also includes former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Shevin Smith, ex-Miami Hurricane Santonio Thomas, Fort Lauderdale native Tracy Scroggins, and ex-Dolphins Leon Searcy, Larry Webster, and Chidi Ahanotu.

The suit claims the NFL knew concussions could destroy players' brains since at least 1994 but pretended everything was OK for at least another decade. The suit leans heavily on the New York Times' reporting on ties between the NFL and the tobacco industry:

Defendants have a long history of conjuring and promulgating maligned scientific studies and medical research, which have been observably devised to complement their financial state of well-being. Strikingly, NFL-Defendants have been handling this health crisis similar to that of the tobacco industry, which is known for using questionable science to minimize the dangers of cigarettes. Defendants have gone so far as to hire many of the same lobbyists, lawyers and consultants that have become infamous for representing the big tobacco companies in the same manipulative manner.
Beginning in 2005, the suit says, the NFL and other sports leagues tried to inject as much false information into the public consciousness as possible. "Like Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, et al., NFL defendants know that it is much easier to debate the science than to debate the logic," the players claim.

But University of Pennsylvania brain scientists made a major breakthrough in 2016: They discovered a way to measure a brain protein called tau, in order to predict CTE in adults. Their results were the NFL's worst nightmare: According to Penn scientists, far more players were living with early-onset CTE than anyone had previously thought.

So now the South Florida players named in the lawsuit are fighting to protect every early-onset CTE victim in the NFL. The players say that, rather than beef up their retirement benefits, the NFL is ignoring the fact that recently retired players, some in their 20s, are living with brain fog, confusion, and memory loss as a direct result of their time in the NFL. (At least one player as young as 18 was found to have CTE-like symptoms in a study, and a 21-year-old player who hanged himself was also found to have CTE.)

All 38 players named in the suit say they experienced "repeated head trauma" in the NFL.

"It appears that the causation factor has essentially been met, and Defendants are slowly acknowledging this fact," the suit says. "But, they are not giving up on their denial and deflection game just yet. Now, they are focusing their proverbial weapons of denial and manipulation on the next logical target in order not to provide CTE-specific workers’ compensation benefits: Diagnosis in living players."

Here's a copy of the suit:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.