Thursday, March 15, 2012


If I were a law student pondering a specialty, I’d consider personal injury suits with an emphasis on football. Former National Football League players alone could create a clientele that would keep me busy for an entire career.

If you’ve been reading the sports pages for more than the box scores lately, you know what I’m talking about. Not only have former NFL players—some still in their 20s-- been suing the league en masse for compensation for the results of concussions they sustained on the gridiron, but revelations about the organized administration of the post-surgical pain-killer Toradol, to keep players with various ailments on the field, have opened a broader area of litigation.

Then came the NFL itself with the appalling charge that the New Orleans Saints made “bounty” payments to defensive players who maimed opponents, and comments by players from other teams who said that, yeah, their clubs did pretty much the same thing. According to experts quoted in a piece in last week’s the New York Times, this means that individual players, coaches and teams might be dragged into civil court to answer (and pay) for their misdeeds, with consequences as yet undetermined. Suffice it to say that the defense-lawyer side of the situation might prove as lucrative as the plaintiff’s side.

Of course, as any honest lawyer (I’m sure there are some) will tell you, suing ain’t the same as winning, so it’s too soon to start toting up damages. Further, football being the institution that it is, predictions of the NFL’s demise under the lawsuit avalanche probably are overstated. Nevertheless, the NFL certainly is in for a rocky stretch and may suffer collateral problems from the spotlight on injuries the legal actions will bring. Given the sport's multiple dangers, more parents will be withholding permission for their kids to play it on the lower levels, and without such feeders the head eventually could die. As evidence mounts that concussions’ effects are cumulative and that even ones not recognized at the time of occurrence may bite years later, would you sign Junior’s consent form?

Over the past couple of seasons the NFL has taken steps to deal with the issue. Ironically, however, that may only strengthen the legal hands of head-injury suffers who say that those measures are based on information previously known but ignored. Surely, the NFL can’t claim to only recently have heard about “The Silent Epidemic.” I began writing about it in the Wall Street Journal in 1982, and I wasn’t the first.

The recent case that most stirred the pot was the 2011 suicide at age 50 of Dave Duerson, an ex-Chicago Bears safety who shot himself to death after wrestling unsuccessfully with the progressive headaches, memory loss and general lack of function his head injuries caused. Duerson’s post-mortem exam revealed that he suffered from advanced brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, rare in someone his age. Team doctors must have—or should have—noticed this and blown the whistle on his career long before the condition became acute, his heirs assert.

To make that point in court, though, they’ll have to stand in line. About 650 other retired players also have filed suit against the league, saying it taught such unsafe practices as head-first tackling, ignored scientific evidence of the seriousness of head traumas and failed to treat them properly once they occurred. So many such suits pend that a Philadelphia federal judge recently consolidated some of them, but 18 separate actions remain and the number climbs.

The damaging assertion that teams encouraged players to play through injuries was underlined in a New York Times op ed piece on Toradol last December by Nate Jackson, whose eight-year NFL career as a wide receiver and tight end ended in 2009. By using such pain-maskers, players run the risk of turning small injuries into large ones. Jackson wrote:

“When I played for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008, Toradol was a popular pregame injection. The night before we took the field 10 to 20 of us would go into a designated room and stand in line to receive our shots. I don’t remember what if any specific injury I was nursing but I do remember that my body was perpetually feeling bad, as were those of my teammates. Our training staff knew this and would encourage us to get a shot. We were told it would make us feel better so we lined up for the needle.

“When I got to the front of the line I was told that the shot was known to cause internal bleeding in a very small percentage of patients but was otherwise safe. The disclaimer was given with needle in hand and a line of men waiting behind me. There was no hesitation, no trepidation, no point at which I felt that taking Toradol was a risk… The big risk, in my mind, was not being at my best the next day. The big risk was not taking the shot, playing poorly and being viewed by the staff as unwilling to do what it took to help the team win. The big risk was losing my job.”

The fact that Jackson and others like him weren’t forced onto the field at gun point will be used in its defense by the NFL, and by the individuals possibly sued for “bounty” hits. So will the concept of “assumed risk,” which in football means that anyone who plays the brutal game does so knowing that the potential for injury is high. Indeed, a case can be made that whatever they tell their wives football players are daredevils like test pilots, fire fighters and war correspondents, machos types for whom risk adds to their jobs’ appeal.

The league, however, ought to immediately do a couple of things to protect players from themselves. One is to award lifetime, Cadillac-level health coverage to anyone who dons an NFL uniform; it’d be expensive but probably less so than what the current lawsuits will cost. The other is to abolish forevermore the post of team doctor; while medical personnel should be available for sideline emergencies, further care should be entrusted only to the players’ own physicians. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone who works for someone else sticking a needle in my butt.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


People used to ask me (and sometimes still do) where I got my column ideas. We in the business know that’s no mystery. God always provides.

The last several weeks have been a case in point. Before February the only people who’d heard of Jeremy Lin were Harvard basketball fans and members of his immediate family, a group you could count on your fingers and toes. Now, just like that, everybody has.

And until last week the common wisdom had it that Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ strongboy, was going down for steroids use, the latest in a dreary line of baseballers to suffer that fate. But what do you know, he beat the rap! How’d he do that?

First things first, so let’s start with young Jeremy. His is a heart-warming tale if there ever was one, that of a modest-appearing, Chinese-American kid from California who suddenly—magically!—blossoms into an NBA star, kind of like the guy who turned into Spiderman. And in New York, no less. That’s astonishing in an era when kids are cataloged nationally for athletic ability starting at about age 10.

For my money, Lin’s emergence is only the second-best recent-year story of its sort, ranking behind that of the football quarterback Kurt Warner. Lin was a three-year starter at Harvard and All-Ivy twice, while Warner never cracked the lineup at far-more-obscure Northern Iowa U. until he was a senior. Further, Lin went right from college to the top pro level (albeit as an undrafted free agent), while Warner worked as a grocery-store stock clerk and labored for years in his sport’s basements before getting his break. That’s a quibble, though.

The more one reads up on Lin, the more sense his success makes. He was a good athlete from the start—an all-state guard as a high schooler in his populous state—and probably was passed over by the top-echelon basketball schools only because of the stereotypes that attach to his ethnicity. Although he was undrafted he made the Golden State Warriors’ roster out of school. He played little in SF last year but made the best of his Development League assignments there, and early this season with the New York Knicks. An inveterate and maybe obsessive gym rat and game-film watcher, he worked diligently to improve every facet of his game, all the while adding weight and strength. Withal, he was a player whose whole exceeded the sum of its parts, and when his prime-time opportunity came he was ready for it.

The other day on the radio I heard Frank Deford, the Sports Illustrated and NPR wiseman, say that Lin’s story makes the sad point that there are other benchwarmers in great number who will go to their graves undiscovered for lack of a chance to shine. I disagree. In this land athletics and the performing arts are about as thoroughly meritocratic as can be imagined, and talent will out. But not often, however, with the splash that Lin’s has.

Ryan Braun’s saga has been quite different from Lin’s. He’s been the can’t-miss kid who didn’t miss—the fifth choice overall in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft, National League rookie-of-the-year in 2007, the NL’s most-valuable player last season, and a reputed nice guy to boot. He appeared almost too good to be true, and when word leaked last fall that he’d flunked an MLB test for performance-enhancing drugs, it seemed that he was.

Braun appealed the ruling. Lo and behold he won, thanks to a lawyer who discovered a hole in the game’s handling of his client’s drug sample (it sat around a courier’s home for two days before being sent to the lab) and convinced an arbitrator that that alone was grounds for overturning a positive test result. No player had won such an appeal in a dozen previous cases in baseball.

Back on the field without penalty last week, Braun might have greeted his acquittal with a wink and a nod, but he went further, full-voicedly declaring his innocence of ever doping even though his appeal succeeded on purely technical ground. That’s what athletes say even after they’ve been nailed beyond doubt, so his denial rang hollow. But some aspects of his case give cause for doubt.

Braun flunks none of the smell tests for steroids use. He doesn’t have the perennially pissed-off personality of, say, Roger Clemens, and his listed weight of 210 pounds (he stands 6-foot-1) was the same last season as it was in his rookie year, meaning that he hasn’t turned into the Michelin Man the way Barry Bonds did. Braun has declared—so far without contradiction—that Brewers’ records show that his speed afoot and weight-room stats also haven’t changed much since he broke in, meaning either that he’s clean or that he’s always used, something that’s doubtful because he’d passed some two dozen official drug tests since 2005 before coming up short last fall.

Finally, Braun’s performance signature has been consistency, not the sudden surges one sees from drug users. With a .332 batting average, 33 home runs and 111 runs batted in, 2011 was his best year overall, but he hit more home runs in 2008 (37) and had more RBIs (114) in 2009, and on a per-game basis his power numbers last year weren’t as good as those of his first season. Contrast that with the stats of Luis Gonzalez, ex of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who averaged 15 home runs a year over a dozen Major League seasons before up and hitting 57 in 1998.

Now that was amazing—almost as amazing as Jeremy Lin’s debut. Hey, maybe it’s Lin who should be drug tested.

NOTE: You might check out, which, as its title suggests, is a new web site devoted to athletic doings in the Windy City, where I’m from. Already up and running, and scheduled to go daily on April 1, it will feature bright sports writing from a number of sources, including me. Its editor is Jonathan Eig, an ex-Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of excellent biographies of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. You should check those out, too.