Officially, it was three years ago that the NFL first acknowledged that repeated concussions can indeed have a long-term effect on mental health. In the six years before that, the league had taken the opposite stance, publishing a series of scientific papers that denied any link between football and brain trauma.
Yet starting in the late 1990s, according to reporting by ESPN's Outside the Lines and PBS's Frontline program, the league's retirement board agreed to pay more than $2 million in disability benefits to three former players after determining that football had left them with devastating brain injuries. The reporters obtained documents and medical records from the disability claim filed in 1999 by the late Steelers center Mike Webster.
This is potentially huge news. Nearly 4,000 former players are party to a federal lawsuit that accuses the NFL of covering up a football-brain trauma link. A lawyer who represented Webster's claim told the reporters the disability payments were "a proverbial smoking gun" for the former players' case, which the NFL has asked to have dismissed. And to judge by the reaction of its spokesman, Greg Aiello, the league was completely blindsided by the revelation:
The NFL declined to comment for this story, but league spokesman Greg Aiello emphasized in an email that the retirement board is independent, and that its decisions "are not made by the NFL or by the NFL Players Association."
The seven-member NFL retirement board is composed of three owner representatives, three player representatives, and a non-voting representative of the NFL commissioner. Among its duties is deciding individual disability claims.
In other words, the NFL is already trying to say that a retirement board comprising NFL owners, NFL players, and someone from the NFL commissioner's office has nothing to do with the NFL.
Webster died in 2002 at the age of 50, after which he was the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. His financial and mental problems were well known when he applied for benefits in '99, but he was only granted partial benefits because the retirement board determined his disability had not surfaced until long after his career was over. His estate successfully sued to get the full benefits three years later.
The Outside the Lines/Frontline report says that based on documents provided to Webster's family as part of the suit, the NFL in 2004 turned over a list of 11 players who had filed claims for disabilities they said had resulted from playing in the NFL. Nine were refused, but two other players had previously been granted "total and permanent" disability benefits. One is former Browns lineman Gerry Sullivan, a plaintiff in the players' suit against the NFL whose post-NFL career as an executive became undone by erratic behavior. The other was a player whose name was redacted from the documents.
The neurologist who examined Webster in '99, Dr. Edward L. Westbrook, told the OTL/Frontline reporters he was asked by the retirement board to check out "at least a half dozen players who had filed disability claims based on traumatic brain injury":
Westbrook, speaking for the first time to the media after receiving permission from Webster's family, said he was "impressed and maybe horrified by … the degree of injury" in the players he examined. Most suffered from some form of mental impairment, Westbrook said, including one case of Parkinson's disease in a young retired player with no family history of the syndrome.
Westbrook said he had no doubt that Webster's problems were caused by "multiple hits" related to football.
Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2009, the league's brain-injury committee published numerous papers saying that "no NFL player" had sustained long-term brain damage that resulted from concussions.