Despite the NFL's historic insistence to the contrary, the NFL retirement board has previously concluded that brain injuries suffered while playing football did result in permanent disability to players, according to a shocking report from ESPN and PBS.
Citing documents and medical records pertaining to deceased Hall of Famer Mike Webster and others, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru of ESPN report that the NFL retirement board paid at least $2 million in disability benefits beginning in the late 1990s to to players who had suffered brain trauma. Even more damning for the NFL is that it appears the retirement board was conceding the impact of football-related brain trauma during the same period that the league itself was refuting the connection.
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Webster played center for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974-1988, before finishing his career with two seasons in Kansas City. A nine-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time Super Bowl champion, Webster is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. As noted in Webster's obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he had earned the nickname "Iron Mike" for his toughness. With his body and mind wrecked from his playing career, Webster struggled to function until his death in 2002 at age 50, even becoming homeless for a time. Three years before his death, Webster was awarded disability payments relating to the brain trauma suffered during his career, per ESPN and PBS.
"The Retirement Board determined that Mr. Webster's disability arose while he was an Active Player," wrote the director of the NFL's retirement plan to Webster's lawyer in May 2000, in a letter made public by the ESPN/PBS report. The report authored by Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru is based on findings from a forthcoming book on the topic of NFL concussions, as well as a documentary produced jointly by PBS' Frontline and ESPN's Outside The Lines.
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In 2004, the NFL Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury published findings indicating that there was "no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects" of multiple concussions, via CNN. Not only do these findings contradict the scientific evidence currently available but they seem to be in complete disagreement with the NFL retirement board's decision regarding Webster.
This report by Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru comes just a few months after a study published in Neurology in September found that former NFL players died of Alzheimer's or ALS at a rate four times higher than that of the general population. On the very same day as the study was published, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a $30 million donation for medical research to the National Institutes of Health.
"We hope this grant will help accelerate the medical community's pursuit of pioneering research to enhance the health of athletes past, present and future," Goodell said at the time.
These revelations regarding Webster and several other players could have an impact on the mega-lawsuit facing the NFL, in which the smaller lawsuits of many retired players have been consolidated. The plaintiffs in that pending lawsuit, filed in June in Philadelphia, aim to hold the NFL responsible for health problems related to concussions and brain trauma suffered while playing in the NFL. That the NFL retirement board has previously awarded such payments to players like Webster, as reported by ESPN and PBS, may bolster the case of the players currently involved in litigation.
"The impact of the Webster decision is one of total embarrassment for the National Football League," said ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson. "It is a public relations disaster for the National Football League but in the current concussion cases the legal impact of the Webster decision will be minimal."
WATCH: Munson Breaks Down Implications Of Findings
Just one day before ESPN and PBS published this report, Goodell was speaking at the Harvard School of Public Health and addressed the issue of concussions and player health.
In recent years, there has been a much sharper focus on concussions in football and other sports. There are still unanswered questions, but scientists and doctors know more about concussions and their long-term potential effects than they did even a few years ago. The key issue for us is how we use this new understanding to make the game even safer and more exciting in the future.
Goodell assumed the role of NFL Commissioner in 2006 and his time in the job may ultimately be defined by his handling of concussions. Not only must he ensure that present and future players don't suffer the fate of Webster but he must admit -- as the NFL retirement board apparently did -- that those past players who have been irreprebably harmed by the game receive adequate consideration, compensation and treatment.