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Ex-Football Players Sue Early Onset Dementia Care

American style football is a brutal sport. Every single play sees bodies smashing together, sees someone getting either flung or dragged to the ground. Then they all get up and do it again, and again, and again. Even with helmets and padding there are injuries. Knees are blown out, shoulders are dislocated. Every game, even when there is not an injury that stops the game, is an assault on the muscles, joints and brains of nearly all the players (kickers get off easier, most of the time).

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These are big guys, they train for this and they do it by choice. Still the cumulative affect of playing college then professional football is such that the average age where players retire is 35 years old. That’s it, buy the time they are less than half way to the average life expectancy for their generation, they are in such damaged condition they can no longer pursue playing football as a career.

If the damage stopped when they stopped playing it might not be so bad. Unfortunately it does not always happen that way. Things that you can live with when you are in your twenties and early thirties become more serious as you age. This is particularly true with brain trauma. What starts as headaches and short-term memory problems can turn into early onset dementia.

The New York Times has had a couple of articles on this issue; you can read the first here and the second here. The issue of dementia is a big one, as people with dementia nearly universally have to have some kind of assisted living care. As people lose their cognitive functions they lose the ability to be easily reasoned with. Where you can tell someone that the street out front has a 45 mile an hour speed limit and they would understand that they will have to be careful near it, a person with dementia will not make that jump or understand or may forget that you told them altogether.

Assisted living can be very expensive, depending on the needs of the patient. It is for this reason that there have been suits filed in California under their workers compensation law asking that the N.F.L (actually their insurers) pay the cost for retired players who are developing early onset dementia.

The reason that the cases are being filed in California is that the Workers Compensation laws there allow for people who were from out of state but worked in California to file in that system. California is also one of few states that recognize cumulative injuries as a cause for workers compensation claims and allows filings by professional athletes.

The test case to determine if the N.F.L.’s insurers will be in the hook for this kind of long term care is making its way through the California courts. Ralph Wenzel played football as a line man for 7 years in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. Today he can not communicate and must live in assisted living. He is lucky in the fact that his wife has excellent insurance and they are part of the a group called Plan88, a kind of mutual insurance that pays up to $88,000 a year for care of dementia in ex-players.

While Mr. Wenzel is lucky (if you can call someone who has very little memory or understanding of where he is and can not communicate lucky) but his not really that common a case. Many players who are forced to retire because of injuries eventually file for workers compensation. The problem comes in that they have a choice, life time medical care and a small amount of money or a large lump sum of money in exchange for releasing the team and its insurers from any future liability for their injuries.

It should seem like a no brainer, if you get a company to agree that you are owed care for your injuries, like brain trauma, for the rest of your life at no cost to you, well that is what you should take. However, the lure of a quarter million or so dollars (the average settlement amount) tax free seems to be too much for many of the players. Approximately 75% of the players who file for workers comp take a settlement are release the insurance companies from liability.

This money now point of view is problematic. While players can make very good money while they are playing, they are not all good with managing it or planning for the time when they can not play football anymore. For those who have not been able to find high paying work after leaving the N.F.L. the idea of a quarter million right away seems like the right decision, when compared to the possible need for expensive health care some time in the future.

This whole issue points out the inequities of the current state in professional sports. While some players do become multi millionaires most do not. The N.F.L as had operating revenues of 1.01 billion dollars last year. The cost of caring for the players who make that possible is negligible compared to that. Yet the N.F.L. and its insurers are trying to avoid these types of claims.

As we find more and more direct links to early onset dementia and the kind of repetitive head injuries that are common amongst players the need to address the problem going forward and for past players will only grow. Hopefully the courts in California will find that this is the responsibility of the teams to cover and that the players will not trade away their long term care for short term cash.

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Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for