MIAMI - Former NFL players should not be permitted to sue for damages over concussions they suffered because player safety issues have long been governed by the league's collective bargaining agreements, an NFL lawyer said Thursday.
"You don't get to come to court," league lawyer Beth Wilkinson said. "They should go through the process that's laid out in the agreement."
Wilkinson spoke following a hearing before the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which is considering whether to consolidate 21 player lawsuits filed in six states before a single judge for pretrial matters. At least 300 former football players, plus an equal number of wives and other family members, are plaintiffs in the cases.
They include Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett, Lem Barney and Joe DeLamielleure and other stars such as Ottis Anderson, Mark Duper, Jim McMahon, Paul Krause and Marvin Jones. The vast majority, however, are players who toiled more obscurely in the game's trenches and often bounced from team to team.
Some are suffering from degenerative brain diseases, depression and other mental ailments.
The six-judge panel made no immediate decision. Still, there was a clear consensus between player attorneys and the league to bring the cases to U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, who sits in Philadelphia where the first player lawsuits were filed.
"We can't go wrong there," said lawyer Michael McGlamry of Atlanta.
The players accuse the NFL of negligence and misconduct for the way it responded to players' concussions and complaints of dizziness, headaches and related problems. The lawsuits also contend the NFL deliberately downplayed the dangers of head injuries despite knowing the risks.
The lawsuits seek unspecified damages and some want the NFL to pay for medical monitoring of former players to watch for future problems such as dementia and memory loss.
Wilkinson said the league will argue in court that the lawsuits should be dismissed because of the labour agreements, which typically called for mediation or arbitration in player safety disputes. She said the agreements have differed some over the years and the venue would be determined by the years each player was active.
"It's player by player and specific injuries," she said.
The cases are gaining national attention just as the NFL gears up for its annual showcase, the Feb. 5 Super Bowl in Indianapolis between the New England Patriots and New York Giants.
League spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email the NFL "has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so. Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit."
One former player who attended the hearing, safety Rich Miano, said he sees the lawsuits as potentially key to changing the culture of the NFL so that safety becomes paramount.
Miano, who played for the Jets, Eagles and Falcons from 1985 to 1995, said in his day "concussion wasn't a word in the forefront. It was more 'getting your bell rung.' 'Getting a stinger.' There was no sitting out a game."
"It was just 'Get back out there.' It was your job," he added.
Some lawsuits also name as a defendant helmet maker Riddell Sports Inc., claiming it and the NFL essentially colluded to downplay the dangers of head injury. Player lawyer Thomas Girardi said claims against Riddell should be included in the consolidation of cases.
"They were hand-in-hand with the NFL. We think we should all be in the same courtroom," Girardi said.
Riddell lawyer Paul Cereghini said the company has pending motions to dismiss the lawsuits in California and the lawsuits against it are different because they involve product liability claims, not negligence.
"We don't want to get caught in the crossfire, and we shouldn't get caught in the crossfire," he said.