This is an interview series in which we ask the plaintiffs of the NFL concussion lawsuit one question (and maybe a few more): Knowing what you know now, if you could do it over again, would you still play football?
University of Washington offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy was the ninth overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft. He played 11 seasons in the league, three with the Falcons, then eight with the Raiders, and was a Pro Bowl selection in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Kennedy started in one Super Bowl, a disappointing 48-21 Oakland loss to former coach Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kennedy, now 43, works as a commentator on Oakland Raiders radio broadcasts and serves as president of the NFL Former Players chapter in Phoenix. He is one of the more than 4,500 former NFL players who filed suit against the league over concussions and other head injuries.
I personally believe that you should have a disclaimer of some sort the first time a kid signs up to play football, contact football, tackle football. You understand that your kid playing in Pee Wee football can sustain a concussion at age 8. From that point on, your kid could very well be more susceptible to concussions. Now it's up to you to decide whether or not you want your children to play, to do this.
I think that what you're seeing, the way that this thing was settled and handled, is basically you're throwing some crumbs out to the former players and saying, "Hey, take this and make do with it." But in the future you're going to have those types of disclaimers put into contracts in some sort of language, in my opinion. I believe that the NFL will do its part with the rule changes to be able to go into court from now on and say, "This is what we implemented. We started this to help prevent it, to help circumvent it, to help deal with it, the concussions." So they're doing everything to prevent future litigation, if you ask me.
If you look at the rules that are in place to help manage and limit concussions at this particular stage, they've got to go through a concussion evaluation. That's mandatory. That wasn't happening three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago when I was playing. And they've got that baseline study that every player has to do at the beginning of the season, so if they ever doubt that they sustained a concussion this is the baseline that you go back to. That was never done back then. So they've got things already in place, measures already in place, if you will, to help prevent against the litigation.
I've always believed that in order for the team or the NFL to say that they're doing right by the player in every way measured, they have to have somebody who is completely separate from the NFL, and not related to the player, to implement these tests. And they've done that. I don't know how they're paid or how they get their compensation, but they have a third party that's supposed to evaluate these guys to see whether or not they're seriously concussed or the severity they're concussed, and that to me shows that they know they weren't doing enough.
They want to make it go away as quickly as possible. Litigation is bad for business.
You've got to keep in mind: to this day, in everything that I've been through in my 40-plus years of life, no one has ever told me exactly what a concussion is. So when I've been asked the question, "How many did you have?" I'm not sure how to answer that. So I started speculating. I started thinking about back when I was playing. There was a wide receiver by the name of Don Beebe with the Buffalo Bills. After he sustained a concussion, and a severe concussion, they came up with an apparatus that fit on the top of his helmet, like an added part-cushion. But it ruined the entire cosmetic image of the Buffalo Bills helmet. I thought to myself, "Well, if this is something that could help prevent future concussions, then why aren't more people wearing it? Why aren't they using it more?"
We come from a generation where it was widely thought and expressed that pain was a sign of weakness. And we were taught to ignore that rather than respect it for what it was. So now when you come off to the sideline and say that you got your bell rung and a doctor's evaluating, it's much more involved than just saying, "Hey, how many fingers am I holding up?" Now you've got to go in the locker room and get that baseline evaluation. That wasn't present a few years ago. So now they're trying to do more to protect the players rather than just leaving it up to the player or the coach, because let's face it, the coach wants his best players on the field and the player wants to be considered the best player. He wants to be out there.
From the time that you're a Little Leaguer, all the way through high school, college, so on and so forth, everything is provided for you. The moment guys get on their own, the transition after the game, a lot of guys don't necessarily know how to take care of themselves. And a lot of guys don't know how to stay informed. A lot of guys don't take the time to pick up a newspaper to read if there's a possible lawsuit and they're trying to find applicants to get involved to possibly make it a class action lawsuit. I say that because I'm the president of the Former Players chapter here in Arizona, and I know firsthand that guys are more apt to look for a handout than to do the work behind it to get help.
And to take that a step further, when guys get out of the league, unless you come to them and spoonfeed them the facts that there's a lawsuit that might benefit you and aid you in finding benefits and all this other stuff, unless you actually explain every little tidbit, more guys would choose to ignore it and not be a part of it.
It's not so much for the current player, the here and now. Most guys didn't steadily make seven figures until my first year, the first CBA [collective bargaining agreement], so if you go a generation before that guys aren't making that multitude of money. More importantly, when you talk about other major league sports, they have health programs for their guys, retired guys. They have health benefits for the retired guys. Because guys weren't making as big money and they are struggling, and because of that regimented lifestyle guys don't know. They don't know if the reason why they're acting up on their first wife or the reason why they're so violent is because they've got something that's off in their brain due to a concussion. When they go to the doctor and say, "Hey Doc, I don't know what the heck is going on. I feel terrible. I've got headaches. I can't remember anything. I have these violent outbursts. My wife is afraid of me," the doctor says, "Well, we're going to have to run a gamut of tests. It's going to cost you anywhere from $25 to $3000 a test because your insurance doesn't cover it," or "You don't have insurance." So what is the guy left to do when he's struggling to make ends meet? He says, "Well, I can't afford that."
Junior Seau was a good friend of mine. I was saddened by the fact, of course, that it had to come to such tragic terms, but Junior was completely lost without football. He had no idea what to do without football. And when he went to the San Diego Chargers, to me, they turned their back on him. Because they're like, "You're no longer a here and now." Junior wasn't a coach. He didn't have that mental capacity to be a coach. He didn't want to be a coach. But he needed to be in the spotlight. And so when his brain took a turn for the worse, he reacted the way he did. And I don't think even Junior knew the signs to say, "Hey, let me go find help." But I do believe the San Diego Chargers, at the least—and this is my own personal opinion—at the very minimum could've said, "Hey Junior, why don't you go see somebody, and put it on our dime? And let's just get you checked out." And they find out after he dies, after he kills himself and after they open up his brain, he suffered from CTE. We're learning more and more about CTE every day. And we're just now realizing the possible lasting effects of concussions and multiple concussions and CTE and all that other stuff. And how many of those guys out there because of regimented lifestyles or their own laziness, misinformed, whatever reason, just don't know? And it is taking a toll.
I know more and more guys that are just lost. But guys are scared to try to get evaluated because they can't afford it. It's that cut and dry. They can't afford it. As a player representative when I was with the union, I fought for lifetime medical, I fought for some measure to help the guys after the game. It's only a small percentage that makes that really, really big money, but the general public doesn't understand that. They think all professional players make big, big money, and it's not the truth. But the thing is, when the five years is up on a former player, and the medical insurance is gone and you're on your own, there are things – I know this firsthand, personally – that will be excluded if you try to go to a private insurance carrier and get covered. The joint surgeries and everything else? They won't cover them. So what is a guy to do? What is a guy to do about his brain when he takes his medical records and he's asked, "How many concussions did you sustain? Three or more? Two or more?" What's the cutoff? When will a private carrier say, "Well, we can't insure that"?
Knowing what you know now, if you had it to do over again, would you play football?
Rob Trucks was last seen on Deadspin interviewing former athletes about the end of their careers. His oral histories with 49-year-old Americans can be found at McSweeney's, and his latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album.