New Lawsuit Says NFL Knew Of CTE For Decades

Attorneys for the family of Adrian Robinson, Jr. present most complete conspiracy allegations yet

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May 22, 2017 at 2:06 PM ET

A new lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania state court by the estate of Adrian Robinson Jr.—a former NFL player who committed suicide in 2015 and was subsequently found to have the debilitating brain disease CTE—paints the most compelling picture yet of decades of alleged deception by the NFL and helmet maker Riddell in their touts of football’s purported safety.

The document is a riveting read not only for its prose—Sheilla Dingus at the Advocacy for Fairness in Sports commented that “attorney Brad Sohn weaves a tale of intrigue, conspiracy, deception and manipulation that would rival a fiction best seller”—but also, and most especially, for the level of accumulated detail alleging negligence by professional football in protecting players from concussions and sub-concussive blows. Indeed, the suit alleges that “defendants acted in concert to maximize profits and (as to Riddell, to maximize market share) through hiding, misrepresenting and omitting information regarding football’s ties to latent, catastrophic and/or deadly neurocognitive injuries based on repetitive head trauma.”

The suit opens, “This Complaint sets forth an unparalleled story in American sports: it begins with a stunning conspiratorial arrangement and ends with the horrific death of Adrian Robinson, Jr.” Robinson’s name itself disappears for pages at a time in the narrative of the alleged conspiracy in the complaint. The timeline of his life—starting football at age six and continuing until his death—is interspersed along with the accusations compiled by his estate’s legal team to show the background of the league’s alleged concealment of the issue of repetitive head trauma, with the NFL’s knowledge of CTE dating back to “at least to the 1960s” (emphasis by the plaintiffs).

An email seeking comment from an NFL spokesman was not immediately returned.

The suit minces no words describing the alleged “conspiracy,” the so-called “sham-science” used by the defendants, and accusations of “unethical and flawed scientific studies to advance self-serving conclusions” and that there was a “concerted effort that deprioritized human life in the face of profit oft-analogized to the strategies of ‘Big Tobacco.’”

The timeline presented includes such checkpoints as far back as a 1928 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association by pathologist Harrison Martland, who “demonstrated a scientifically observable link between repetitive exposures to head trauma and long-term, latent, brain disease”—at the time found in boxers and known as being “punch-drunk” or having dementia pugislitica.

There are later references to 1952 research in the New England Journal of Medicine proposing “a three-strikes rule for concussive exposures and football;” a 1961-1962 study by Dr. Stephen Reid, with the American Medical Association backing him, that acknowledged a “cumulative effect” of blows to the head; legal recognition of CTE in a 1966 court case that referred to research examining Korean war veterans; and a 1969 “Football Injuries” symposium in which one of the presentations cautioned against the use of hard-shelled helmets. The lawsuit notes, however, that the primary litigation helmet makers faced in the 1960s and 1970s resulted from skull fracture and brain-bleed—the type of injuries hard-shell helmets best prevented.

That’s also when the National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment (“NOCSAE”) came about with a 1970 set of safety protocols that, the suit noted, explicitly said in its newsletters that it was “not created as a concussion prevention standard.” The complaint noted:

“NOCSAE was, and remains, self-regulating, and establishes voluntary equipment safety standards, with manufacturers testing their own equipment and then reporting results to NOCSAE to receive their certification seal. Upon information and belief, doing so serves multiple purposes: a) it buttresses a built-in defense to liability on the part of a manufacturer; b) it attempts to create a built-in defense to liability on the part of a league such as Defendant NFL or sporting organization for allowing the usage of a specific brand or product; and, c) it serves as a preemptive strike against governmental regulation.”

The NFL later established a Mild-Traumatic Brain Injury committee (MTBI), which produced what the complaint deemed “sham research.” Among the dubious findings: “Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season;”  “it can be concluded that [MTBIs] in professional football are not serious injuries;” and “no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects of multiple [MTBI] in NFL players.” The Concussion Legacy Foundation, meanwhile, reports that it has found CTE in 91 of the 95 brains donated by former pro football players to medical research.

The suit later alleges, “The NFL’s negligence allowed the MTBI Committee to use falsified industry-funded research to mislead the medical community and the general public on the risks associated with repetitive head impacts.” When the NFL replaced the MTBI with the Head Neck and Spine group, the complaint says, “Moreover, the HNS Committee actively sought to block government funding for Boston University’s CTE research and has loaded up its roster primarily albeit not exclusively with researchers who deny the effects or even existence of CTE, which has a known association to mood-changes, impulsivity and suicide”

Even Minnesota Life Group Employers paid Robinson’s life insurance policy—even though the cause of death was suicide—because it “investigated the claim and determined CTE and its foreseeable result (the subject, self-inflicted death) caused the death as opposed to an excluded ‘intentional act.’”

The entire 91-page complaint appears to show a meticulously researched picture of an alleged conspiracy to conceal the dangers of head trauma in football, with roots dating back decades before the concussion crisis went mainstream and well before Robinson died at just 25 years of age.