NFL Concussions: The 2013-14 Season In Review

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Watch League of Denial, FRONTLINE’s examination of the NFL concussion crisis.

The 2013-14 season was supposed to be the year the NFL put its concussion crisis behind it. Under siege over its past handling of the issue, the league announced in August that it would pay $765 million to settle claims brought by thousands of former players that it concealed a link between football and traumatic brain injury.

Five months and at least 152 concussions later, the story has yet to go away. In 2013, legends such as Brett Favre, Tony Dorsett, Terry Bradshaw and Harry Carson all came out to discuss how concussions have affected their lives. As a result, a season meant to mark the end of the crisis may now be remembered as the year the taboo around football head injuries was all but erased.

On the eve of the Super Bowl, here’s a look back at the biggest headlines of the season.

March 20, 2013: A New Rule For Hitting With the Helmet

NFL owners approve a new rule designed to reduce, but not completely eliminate, hitting with the crown of the helmet. Despite a vote of 31-1, the change comes under heavy criticism. Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith says the rule “sounds like it’s been made up by people who have never played the game of football.”

Trent Richardson — whose 2012 collision with Kurt Coleman was shown to owners as an example of a bad crown-of-the-helmet hit — says he feels “like I made it bad for all the backs … I feel like it’s my fault.”

April 9: The Concussion Case Goes To Court

U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody holds a preliminary hearing into a landmark concussion lawsuit against the NFL brought by more than 4,500 former players. In their master complaint, players allege that the NFL “… Ignored, minimized, disputed, and actively suppressed broader awareness of the link between sub-concussive and concussive injuries in football and the chronic neuro-cognitive damage, illnesses, and decline suffered by former players.”

The NFL asks the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that under the league’s collective bargaining agreement with players, issues concerning “workplace safety” must be settled through arbitration, not the courts.

In an emotional address outside the court, Kevin Turner, a former fullback for the Philadelphia Eagles, discusses his battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and notes he’s glad to see the case moving forward. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of us who don’t have 10 years to find out what the decision is,” he says.

On July 8, Judge Brody orders the NFL concussion lawsuit into mediation.

July 25: A Rookie Retires

Citing his history with head injuries, NFL rookie Ryan Swope retires from football before having the chance to play in a single game. Swope, 22, entered the NFL as the all-time leading receiver in Texas A&M University history. He caught for more than 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in college, but also suffered at least two concussions.

A month before his announcement, Swope went down with another concussion during organized team activities (OTAs) with the Arizona Cardinals. In a statement explaining his decision to retire, Swope writes:

As a result of a concussion I suffered during OTAs, I was advised by doctors that there were serious risks in returning to play football at this point. It has been a lifelong dream to play in the NFL but my long-term health interests outweigh my current goals for football.

Aug. 29: A Surprise Settlement

In a surprise announcement, the NFL agrees to a $765 million settlement in the concussion case. The settlement ensures league officials will not have to answer questions under oath about what they knew about a link between football and traumatic brain injury.

The case’s court-appointed mediator explains that the agreement “doesn’t mean that the NFL hid information or did what the plaintiffs claimed.” Nor does it mean “that the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football or that the plaintiffs would have been able to prove that their injuries were caused by football.”

Aug. 29: 30 “Unofficial” Concussions

During the 2013 NFL preseason, FRONTLINE finds 40 instances of a player concussion or head injury reported on team websites. However, because of a gap in how teams report injury data to the league, just 10 of those concussions end up on the official NFL injury report for Week 1 of the season.

Sept. 8: The Regular Season Begins

Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley suffers the first officially reported concussion of the regular season, but is allowed to return to the field after passing a concussion test. Kerley passes a second exam after the game, but arrives at practice the next day still showing symptoms. On his third test, he is diagnosed with a concussion.

Kerley is one of 20 receivers to suffer a concussion during the 2013 season, according to FRONTLINE’s Concussion Watch project. In all, teams reported 152 concussions on the NFL injury report.

Sept. 22: “Daddy, I Don’t Want You To Play Football Anymore”

Packers receiver Jermichael Finley suffers a concussion after colliding with George Iloka of the Bengals. In a scary scene, Finley tries running to the sidelines after the hit, staggers for roughly 10 paces, and then falls to the ground.

Five days later, Finley posts a video on his website explaining the aftermath of the injury. “I looked to the sideline,” he says, “All I saw was jerseys. I saw pants, the yellow pants we wear. And I didn’t see no heads or legs. So everybody was decapitated, and my body was just on fire.”

In the video, Finley goes on to discuss a phone call from his young son later that day:

He said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want you to play football anymore.’ That was a little hard to take, hearing a five-year-old, knowing the violence, the intensity of the game, seeing his dad walk off the field like he did.

Oct. 3: The Commissioner Writes To Fans

In a letter to roughly 10 million fans, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says that although the league maintains an “unwavering commitment to player health,” professional football “will remain the hard-hitting, physical sport that you love.” The letter is sent one day after the release of two excerpts from the book League of Denial, which details the NFL’s checkered response to the concussion crisis.

Oct. 9: Troy Aikman Reflects On His Concussion History

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman tells The Sporting News that even though has no regrets about his own career in football, he wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable letting his child play the game. “If I had a son, I wouldn’t necessarily discourage him from playing football, but I don’t know that I would encourage him to play either,” says Aikman.

Oct. 24: Brett Favre Says Memory Loss Has “Put A Little Fear In Me”

Three years removed from football, Brett Favre tells the Washington sports station WSPZ-AM that he has started to lose his memory and fears the damage to his brain will get worse. “I don’t remember my daughter playing soccer, playing youth soccer one summer. I don’t remember that,” he says. “… So that’s a little bit scary to me. For the first time in 44 years, that put a little fear in me.”

Over his career, Favre was sacked 525 times, more than any other NFL quarterback in history. “God only knows the toll that will be taken as time goes by,” he says. (Listen to the full interview here).

Nov. 4: NFL Stars Diagnosed with CTE

Researchers at UCLA discover telltale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the crippling brain disease, in three NFL retirees: Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure, and former NFL All-Pro Leonard Marshall. The discovery marks just the second time that the degenerative brain disease has been found in living players.

CTE, as the disease is known, is believed to stem from repeated blows to the head and has been linked to a variety of symptoms, such as memory loss, depression and dementia. The condition has been discovered in dozens of former football players, including San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and Mike Webster.

In an interview with FRONTLINE, DeLamielleure says that over his 12-year NFL career, he probably sustained “hundreds” of concussions.

“This is a job-related injury for me,” he says. “There’s no other way I got it. I didn’t go pounding my head into the wall. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t get punched in the head one time. It’s from continuous hits to the head.”

Nov. 5: Broncos Lineman John Moffitt Retires

After just three seasons in the NFL, Broncos lineman John Moffitt says he is retiring from football because he is no longer willing to jeopardize his health. “I think it’s really madness to risk your body, risk your well-being and risk your happiness for money,” Mofitt tells the Associated Press. Mofitt did not have a history with concussions, but he acknowledges that head injuries factored into his decision: “I’m not trying to be the poster boy for ‘Oh, I thought I should leave because of concussions.’ I’m just saying, it’s a valid point.” In a farewell message to fans on Twitter, he jokes, “Football was fun but my head hurts — ha ha kidding roger goodell.”

Nov. 7: Terry Bradshaw Says His Brain Is “Not In Real Good Shape”

Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw tells USA Today that the physical pounding he sustained over 13 seasons in the NFL has affected his memory and led to occasional bouts of depression. Bradshaw says his health problems led him to a California clinic four years ago to learn more about his condition. “I couldn’t focus and remember things, and I was dealing with depression,” says the Fox NFL Sunday analyst. “I was frustrated I couldn’t remember stuff, and I got real upset. It was driving me nuts. I got tested to see what condition my brain is in. And it’s not in real good shape.”

Nov. 14: Pop Warner Participation Drops 9.5%

With the NFL’s concussion crisis increasingly in the news, the nation’s largest youth football program, Pop Warner, announces that it saw its participation rate drop 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012. “Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago,” according to an Outside the Lines report by League of Denial authors Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. “Pop Warner officials said they believe several factors played a role in the decline … But the organization’s chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, cited concerns about head injuries as ‘the No. 1 cause.'”

November 17: Two Concussions for Wes Welker

After Broncos receiver Wes Welker is hit in the head by Chiefs safety Eric Berry, he starts to leave the field, but then drops to one knee. Welker is checked by doctors on the sideline and cleared to reenter the game. He returns for five plays, but is then pulled again. “Symptoms came that were problematic,” explained interim Coach Jack Del Rio,

Welker is later added to the injury report for a neck injury and a concussion, but does not miss any games. Less than a month later, he suffers a second concussion against the Titans:

When Welker returns after missing three games, he’s fitted with an oversized helmet to better protect his head.

Nov. 21 – Nov. 25: A Surge In Injuries

Fourteen players exit games because of a concussion during Week 12, the most of any week of the season.

Nov. 24: Obama Weighs In

“I would not let my son play pro football,” President Obama tells David Remnick of The New Yorker. “At this point, there’s a little bit of caveat emptor. These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

It isn’t the first time the president voiced weariness about football’s safety. In a 2013 interview with The New Republic, Obama said:

I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.

Dec. 13: Jovan Belcher’s Body Exhumed

The body of Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker who in 2012 murdered his girlfriend before turning a gun on himself, is exhumed upon request of his family so that researchers can examine his brain for CTE. Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering the disease, tells The Kansas City Star he “would bet one month’s salary that [Belcher] had CTE.”

Dec. 16: NFL Funds NIH Research

The National Institutes of Health announces it will begin work on eight studies examining the long-term effects of repeat head injuries and how to improve concussion diagnosis. Two of the studies — which are receiving $6 million each from the NFL — will focus on what changes occur in the brain years after a head injury or after multiple concussions.

Jan. 4, 2014: An Untimely Celebration

Colts safety LaRon Landry leaves a playoff game against the Chiefs after taking a knee to the helmet. Before realizing Landry is injured, teammate Kelvin Sheppard runs over and smacks him in the head to congratulate him for making the play.

Jan. 7, 2014: Roger Goodell Responds To League of Denial

In an interview at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is asked for his reaction to charges in the FRONTLINE investigation, League of Denial, that the NFL actively minimized the dangers of concussions. Goodell says there was “absolutely not” a cover-up of any scientific research showing a link between football and long-term brain damage. Goodell says that to the contrary, the NFL has been a leader in the field of concussion research as far back as the 1990s.

“We have driven the awareness of this issue. We have driven the medical study of this issue and I think that’s been good for society and I’m proud of what the NFL has done on that front,” says Goodell. (The exchange begins at approximately 17:02 in the video below).

Jan. 10: A Warning From the Head, Neck and Spine Committee

The NFL’s head, neck and spine committee issues a letter to team doctors and trainers to say that two players broke with league concussion protocol during the opening round of the playoffs.

According to the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press, one player refused to leave the sideline after being diagnosed with a concussion, while a second player was allowed to re-enter the game. Even though injured players might fight to stay on the field, the committee says, league rules are “intended to safeguard the player’s well-being and enhance his ability to recover.”

The message was not enough to prevent Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin from returning from one concussion test the very next day, only to suffer a second blow to the head minutes later. Harvin was initially taken to the Seattle locker room on his team’s first possession after an illegal hit by Saints safety Rafael Bush. The play drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty.

Harvin was tested for a concussion, but as Yahoo! Sports reported, he “was back in the game on Seattle’s next offensive play.”

Harvin was soon down again after falling on his head lunging for a pass in the Seattle end zone. He walked to the sideline under his own power, “but looked visibly shaken, stumbling around bit as trainers led him by the arm,” reported The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. For a second time he was evaluated for a concussion, but this time he would not return.

Jan. 14: Setback for the Concussion Settlement

Judge Anita Brody declines to grant preliminary approval to the $765 million NFL concussion settlement. In her decision, Brody says the proposed agreement may not go far enough to cover the roughly 20,000 former players who may one day be eligible for payment under the terms of the deal.

“Even if only 10 percent of retired NFL football players eventually receive a qualifying diagnosis,” writes Brody, “it is difficult to see how the monetary award fund would have the funds available over its lifespan to pay all claimants at these significant award levels.”

After the deal is rebuffed, an attorney representing 1,200 players tells ESPN’s Outside the Lines that he will recommend that a “substantial number” of his clients opt out of the settlement. The attorney, Thomas Girardi, says that while the agreement benefits severely impaired players, it leaves many others with barely “a handshake.”

Jan. 24: Junior Seau’s Family Objects To Concussion Settlement

The family of legendary linebacker Junior Seau says it will object to the league’s concussion settlement because the agreement does not pay enough in wrongful death claims to survivors. The agreement sets aside $675 million to compensate players for a specific list of injuries, but according to attorneys for the family, it does not allow damages for pain and suffering. “Mr. Seau’s children have their own claims for the wrong the NFL did to them,” family attorneys write in a court filing. “His children are not suing for their father’s pain and suffering, they are suing for their own.”

Seau was found to suffer from CTE at the time of his suicide in May 2012. In a February interview, Seau’s daughter, Sydney, told FRONTLINE that football changed her dad, leaving him forgetful, distant and prone to fits of anger:

Jan. 27: Players Polled On Concussions

In an anonymous survey by ESPN, 85 percent of 320 NFL players polled say they would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion. In a separate poll by USA Today, 39 percent of players say NFL rule changes have made the game safer, while 53 percent said safety was about the same.

Jan. 28: Jahvid Best Sues the NFL

Jahvid Best, a first-round draft pick for the Detroit Lions in 2010, sues the NFL, helmet maker Riddell, and Easton-Bell Sports over concussions. The suit contends that the NFL allowed Best to enter the draft even though he had suffered at least two concussions in college (including the one in the video below).

By allowing him into the draft, the suit contends, the league breached its duty to Best, causing “additional, permanent and severe injuries to his brain.” Best, 25, suffered two more concussions in 22 games for the Lions. He was cut by the team following the second, and has been unable to gain medical clearance to return to football.

Jan. 30: NFL Reports 13 Percent Drop in Concussions

The NFL reports that there were 228 diagnosed concussions during the 2013 preseason and regular season combined, down 13 percent from a total of 261 in 2012. Concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits dropped from 117 to 90, according to the league. When compared against figures from FRONTLINE’s Concussion Watch project, the numbers show that just two-thirds of all concussions are reported on the league’s official injury report.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) catches a pass and incurred a concussion as he tackled by Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Allen Bailey (97) and Kansas City Chiefs free safety Kendrick Lewis (23) during the Kansas City Chiefs against the Denver Broncos in an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. (AP Photo/Tom Hauck)
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