How Philadelphia fits into the NFL’s concussion crisis

Pittsburgh is front-and-center in the Will Smith movie that opens on Christmas — but it’s here where the fight continues in court against the National Football League.

Concussion lawsuit

The movie “Concussion” comes out next week and in it Pittsburgh provides the setting for where the deadly longterm risk of playing in the NFL was revealed. Pittsburgh is where Dr. Bennet Omalu worked when he discovered the degenerative brain disease CTE in former Steeler Mike Webster.  

But Philadelphia is where the current fight against the NFL and the protection of its former players continues. The uncapped settlement to which the league and all its retired players agreed in 2013 and finalized this year was led by Philadelphia attorneys. The challenges and appeals still going on in the case are being decided in Philadelphia’s Eastern District Court. 

The case started in 2011 as something smaller. That summer, former Eagles quarterback Jim McMahon and six other players (Joey Thomas, Ray Easterling, Wayne Radloff, Gerry Feehery, Mike Furrey and Steve Kiner), filed the first class-action lawsuit against the NFL regarding concussions. They enlisted the Philadelphia law firm Anapol Schwartz. Attorneys Sol Weiss and Larry Coben acted as their main representatives and saw potential for the case to grow into something more substantial.

“Our goal is much larger, perhaps more daunting,” Coben told the AP back then. “We have to ultimately determine how many people are in the (legal) classes. How many people from the ’70s are experiencing this, how many people from the ’80s, from the ’90s? And then, what are the losses?”

Weiss declined to be interviewed for this story, as did other lawyers involved with the case, because the final settlement and appeals are still being worked out. But at an event at Villanova Law School last year Weiss shared details about the case and how his firm — and therefore Philadelphia — got involved.

Working with Weiss at Anapol Schwartz was attorney Ned Erlich. He had been on a panel for the NFL Players Association that had represented players in injury claims for years. So that was a connection to NFL players. Coben had taken on cases throughout the country regarding head injuries from sports and other activities like riding motorcycles. In 2011, Weiss and Coben started talking about the concussion crisis, got connected with McMahon and then things started coming together. Weiss estimated the Anapol Schwartz firm alone has dealt personally with about 350 NFL players.   

Around the country, other federal lawsuits started popping up. In 2012, more than 200 lawsuits and complaints from more than 5,000 former players were consolidated into a single class-action lawsuit that featured Weiss and a New York attorney as the lead counsel. Three other Philly firms were involved in the case: Hausfeld LLP, Locks Law and Levin Fishbein Sedran & Berman. A multidistrict lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia’s Eastern District Court and has been presided over by Judge Anita B. Brody.

The uncapped settlement agreed to earlier this year could have given retired players found to have neurological diseases as much as $5 million, but challenges have held it up and prevented any defendants from collecting money so far. Many former players and their advocates argued the settlement didn’t cover enough diseases and conditions brought on by the repetitive hits from football. About 200 players or players’ families who were part of the class action suit opted out. They want to continue challenging the NFL, which did not have to admit any responsibility for knowing the long-term implications of the hits and injuries the players were sustaining.

Meanwhile, one of the main aspects holding up the case is CTE, the disease placed front and center in “Concussion.” As part of the settlement, only players’ families diagnosed with CTE at the time of the settlement — April 2015 — could receive compensation. CTE is only diagnosable posthumously but that could change in the near future because tests are being developed to diagnose it in living people. The players who have appealed want the possibility for compensation if they have symptoms of CTE and are later diagnosed with the disease.    

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Mark Sanchez