Duerson family lawsuit could alter NFL

League may need culture change more than rules changes

The NFL is in Indianapolis this week for the annual scouting combine.

But the quakes and tremors that shook the league Thursday emanated from a seismic event a little more than 200 miles away.

In the law offices of Corboy & Demetrio on Dearborn Street just north of Madison, a news conference was held to announce that the family of former Bear Dave Duerson is suing the NFL.

The lawsuit states the league knew concussions could cause the kind of brain damage that apparently led to Duerson taking his own life, but concealed the information.

The league will argue there is new science on concussions and head injuries.

No matter how this suit is settled, it is part of something bigger that is happening to the NFL.

The same violent collisions that made the NFL grow into a $9.5 billion business could one day force the league to shrivel. It seems the bigger and stronger players get, the smaller and more vulnerable the league might become.

Not counting Duerson's family, there are currently 657 retired players suing the league for concussion-related issues, according to a league source. A federal judge in Philadelphia had consolidated the 657 complaints into 18 lawsuits.

Never before has the league been sued over brain issues like this.

And of the 657 cases, you can bet none are anywhere near as strong as Duerson's. The difference in Duerson's case is that his was the only brain that was studied and found to have advanced brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

I have spoken with many league executives who are very concerned about how the concussion issue will affect the game long term.

That's why the league now preaches that player health and safety is its No. 1 priority.

That's why players are being fined for illegal hits like never before.

That's why the definition of an illegal hit continues to become more encompassing.

And that's why the league made rules changes that affected kickoffs last year, and why it will continue to study changes.

Dr. Hunt Batjer, the co-chair of the NFL's head, neck and spine committee, recently told the Tribune there were 50 percent fewer concussions on kickoffs in 2011. That's progress, but not enough.

This year, a good chance exists the NFL will begin forcing players to wear hip, thigh and knee pads.

The league also will discuss being more transparent about head injuries, including answering questions about how and why players are allowed or not allowed to re-enter games after experiencing symptoms.

But the league has to do more than change rules. It has to change the culture.

Players have to stop believing that it's more important to be able to finish a game at the age of 25 than it is to be able to finish a crossword puzzle at the age of 45. An element of self-preservation must be accepted in the most macho of sports.

The Duerson lawsuit underscores that football cannot continue to thrive with a mentality about head injuries that took root in the leather helmet era.

Fox analyst Troy Aikman, whose Hall of Fame playing career was cut short after 10 concussions, recently was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying he believes the NFL may lose its grip as the most popular professional sport. One of the reasons? The concussion issue.

Aikman said if he had a son, he might not encourage him to play football. He said "the long-term viability, to me anyway, is somewhat in question as far as what this game is going to look like 20 years from now."

Part of the reason the Duerson family filed suit against the league is to bring attention to the issue, according to Duerson's son Tregg Duerson.

"We hope that through our case we can raise awareness and further effect change with the other retired players so they can get the benefits and medical attention they need," Tregg Duerson said. "We also hope the change trickles down to youth sports and concussion policies, as well as how trainers treat these injuries."

As tragic as it is, it may have taken a shot to Dave Duerson's heart to change the game of football as we know it.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter@danpompei
CHICAGO

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