Former Players Sue NFL Over Head Injuries

Robert Siegel talks to former football player Rich Miano about his lawsuit against the NFL. Miano was starting defensive back for the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s and 1990s.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The National Football League faces many lawsuits from hundreds of former players that all concern head injuries. Several former NFL stars have experienced symptoms of brain disorders at relatively early ages - depression, inability to concentrate or remember - symptoms they attribute to concussions they suffered during their playing days.

Rich Miano is a plaintiff in one of those suits. He played 11 seasons in the National Football League as a defensive back, a safety, and he joins us now from Hawaii. Hi. Welcome to the program.

RICH MIANO: Good afternoon.

SIEGEL: And first, I gather that you don't claim to suffer as badly as, say, the former quarterbacks Mark Rypien or Jim McMahon, but you are suing. What relief are you seeking in the lawsuit?

MIANO: My only relief like I - when I first told my wife about this lawsuit, she said, honey, we're not litigious people. We've never sued anybody. I said, honey, this is not about trying to be rewarded compensation. This is about medical monitoring for former NFL players. This is about the ones that obviously have symptoms for them to get medical coverage and care.

SIEGEL: Here are some arguments that you and other former pro football players will probably - or your lawyers will probably have to answer in a court some day. First, yes, you, in your case, played 11 seasons in the NFL, but before that, there was college football, a lot of pro players played high school football. Many played Pop Warner football before that. A lawyer for the league may ask: How do you know it was in pro ball that you sustained this damage?

MIANO: Well, that's a great question. And I think, obviously, you can receive repetitive hits to the head that caused trauma, like you were saying earlier. I think if there is negligence in terms of what the NFL did know in terms of the symptoms, in terms of how they dealt with concussions, did not deal with them, then I think there's a chance for this suit to be successful.

SIEGEL: Here's another argument that you may face: Though we always knew that boxers in the days when there were more professional boxers than professional football players would likely end their days punch-drunk, we used to say. Unlike boxers, pro football players are almost required to spend a few years in college. They are disproportionately educated, as a group, if you count hanging around the university for a few years, education. Shouldn't all of you have known that if you spend your working life banging heads, you might get very hurt in the end?

MIANO: Yeah. I think there is an inherent danger. I think that's something that we all know when we play this game. I also think that there is the ability to whether it's through the pension plans, whether it's through the medical coverage to make sure that these pioneers that played this game that are so - were so lowly compensated, that have no medical coverage, that with the league, you know, estimated revenues at 9.4 billion, and the responsibility of the players' association, which motto is past, present and future, to take care of the past.

SIEGEL: You know, Rich Miano, the talk of pro football fans today is the audio of then New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams giving a locker room speech before the Saints' January playoff loss to San Francisco. Here is a little taste of what actually goes on for several minutes. Gregg Williams' favorite word here is bleeped out in deference to the FCC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

GREGG WILLIAMS: We need to decide on how many times we can beat Frank Gore's head. We need to decide how many times we can bull rush, and we can (bleep) put Vernon Davis' ankles over the pile. And when they are fearing us, they give us the ball.

SIEGEL: At one point, the filmmaker who released this recording said Williams was actually rubbing his fingers to suggest cash, as he talked about who would hit the 49ers quarterback, Alex Smith. There's been a lot of tongue clucking over this speech today. How unusual is that? How unusual is it - a talk like that from a defensive coach?

MIANO: I think it's very prevalent, and I think that the suspension to Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis and, obviously, Gregg Williams has been very, very severe. Nobody wants to hurt one another. I think there is - when you enter the National Football League, you realize your livelihood is based upon your ability to continue to play and earn as much revenue as possible. So therefore I don't think anyone wants to end somebody's career. But, yes, you do, as an opponent, want to take somebody out of the football game. If that's going to, obviously, affect your ability to win or lose that football game so...

SIEGEL: So when you say that the penalties against the New Orleans Saints' general manger and coach and defensive coordinator were very severe, are you saying that because the idea that you should go out there and try to take the guy out of the game is common? It's something that you would expect to hear from a defensive coach.

MIANO: Yeah. And I started playing in 1985 and played all the way to 1996. And there were bounties throughout the league. It was part of the game for so long. There's some legacy of coaches that obviously have been in this league for decades. And even the young coaches have come up learning this type of bounties and incentives and what motivates players. Even though players are making millions of dollars, it's amazing what is extra cash will do in terms of an incentive to hit somebody as hard as you can and possibly take them out of the football game.

SIEGEL: Well, Rich Miano, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

MIANO: Aloha. And have a great day.

SIEGEL: Rich Miano played in the NFL for 11 seasons and is now a plaintiff in one of the many head injury lawsuits against the league.

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