Brain research benefits in NFL concussion settlement
By Denise A. Valenti

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Just in time for the opening games of fall football, the National Football League and former players reached an agreement in a class-action lawsuit over concussion-related events. The tentative settlement calls for $765 million to be provided by the NFL for player medical evaluations, concussion-related expenses and medical research for retired NFL players. The agreement involving more than 4,500 plaintiffs is still pending the approval of the judge assigned to the lawsuit.

INDUSTRY PULSE

Who is the biggest winner in the NFL concussion settlement?
  • 1. The league
  • 2. The players
  • 3. The researchers
  • 4. The lawyers

The response to the settlement in the sports community has been varied. In his op-ed article for The New York Times, former linebacker Scott Fujita was torn. "I expected a settlement to come at some point," said the 11-year veteran who was not part of the lawsuit. "What I didn't expect was to feel so oddly conflicted about it."

LaMar C. Campbell, a former defensive back for the Detroit Lions and one of the players participating in the lawsuit, demonstrated some disappointment.

"Since the initial filing of the concussion lawsuits, the NFL has funded over $100 million on numerous outreach and safety programs," Campbell said. "Yet it's ironic that the final settlement only sets $10 million aside for concussion research. We will never learn what exactly the NFL had learned about football-related brain injuries and when they knew it. This information could be extremely valuable in future decisions and research on how to treat or prevent concussions."

A substantial portion of the previous research funding was provided to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to focus on the science and medical understanding of brain injuries in general, not just in sports. The NFL donated $30 million in unrestricted funds to NIH, and this was considered the largest single donation by the NFL to any organization NFL history. The NFL has also instituted campaigns to increase awareness of head injury in sports, targeting athletes of all ages. One such comprehensive media initiative involves the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recognizing parallel issues of concussion and the work-related incentives and pressure to return to the field within the armed forces compared to the sports community, the NFL is working to share information with the military. This is being done to develop head-injury awareness campaigns that target current players, active military personnel and future generations of athletes and servicemen and servicewomen. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has met with Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, to discuss the need for head-injury risk awareness.

Improving the game-related technology is the goal of research initiatives funded by the NFL, General Electric and Under Armor, and this is being coordinated by NineSigma Research. The proposed research includes on-the-field testing technology and return-to-play diagnostic tools, as well as the development of protective and impact-sensing gear within helmets and padding.

The more information that is available, the better the ability to make informed decisions. Paul D. Anderson, LLC, who has expertise in the legal issues surrounding concussive events and the NFL concussion settlement, commented:

"My initial reaction to the deal was, and still is, that it is fair. Most importantly, it is beneficial to the players and families currently suffering with severe neurological disorders. One of the biggest reasons why this case didn't settle for more than a billion was due to the complex legal issues — specifically, causation — that the plaintiffs would face as they tried to prove their claims."

The mediator involved in the negotiation, Layn Phillips, commented on the complexity of such claims, "To their credit, both sides recognized that it would be far more productive to get out of court and do something good for retired players with medical needs and focus on the future of the game and making it safer."

Jimmy Giles, a former player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also voiced his opinion, "This was a good day for all involved. It returns the focus to the football field, where it belongs."

What is hoped with the settlement is that some of the animosity created by litigation will be removed, resulting in more cooperation between the NFL, retired players and current players. Comprehensive medical evaluations for NFL players are provided under the settlement, and there is the potential to develop a considerable database regarding the mechanics causing concussion and the long-term consequences of sports-related head injury.

With a more thorough understanding of what is exactly happening in head trauma — absent judgment of why it happened, irrespective of whom it happened to or what field it occurred on — the NFL will be in a better position to resolve the problem and get on with the game.

Dr. Denise A. Valenti is a residency-trained, low-vision/blind-rehabilitation optometrist with additional education and expertise in the field of age-related neurodegenerative diseases with the emphasis on Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Her research has included the study of imaging of retinal neural tissue using Optical Coherence Tomography and functional assessment of neural processing in the visual system using Frequency Doubling Technology. Dr. Valenti provided direct clinical care for more than 25 years and currently is active in research and consultation related to vision, aging, neuroprocessing and cognitive functions.