The NFL's Defense Against Head Injury Lawsuits

Class action lawsuits against the NFL are hitting headlines. Players or former players are suing the league because of head injuries. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Mike Pesca.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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MARTIN: If life is a ball game, then Mike Pesca is the guy behind home plate helping us sort out the check swings from the foul balls. He is, of course, NPR's sports correspondent and our guide to the fascinating intersections between life and sports. He joins us, as he does every week. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hey. Every once in a while you could foul a ball off a check swing.

MARTIN: Oh, who knew? So, I've been seeing a lot of headlines recently about these lawsuits against the NFL. I mean, I think at this point there's something like 1,800 players who are suing and at least 60 different suits over possible head injuries. What is the NFL's defense to this? I mean, a lot of these are really compelling emotional stories from these players. How does the NFL come back and rebut these charges?

PESCA: That's right. We read the profiles of the players who are losing their faculties or of wives who have lost their husbands, sometimes to suicide. It's very sympathetic. And you're right - I think the public now is essentially assuming that the NFL's goose is cooked. And I would just maybe offer some of these examples of what the NFL might say should it come to that.

First of all, what the NFL would argue then is players come to our league having played four years of college, having mostly played four years of high school and some football before then. How is it that you could say it was the NFL injuries, if he indeed incurred injuries in the NFL, that created this head trauma? So, they would certainly raise that argument. Another thing that the NFL would surely say is that they'll offer essentially the contributory negligence argument. They'll argue players lie to team doctors to get into games. We always see players quoted as saying, you know, my job was to help the team. I told the doctor that I saw two fingers when I really saw 16, and I got back in there.

And the last one I wanted to talk about is just the years we're speaking of. When we say 1,800 players, you know, a lot of these guys bringing suit played in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and back then there was just so much that was unknown about head trauma. It was more dangerous to play back then because we didn't know anything about concussions. But you can't point to NFL doctors obscuring the best evidence or emphasizing the wrong protocols with head trauma, because, you know, 20 years ago we just didn't know anything about it.

MARTIN: OK. So, any other little sports nugget you've dug up this week that you want to share with us?

PESCA: Yeah, I was thinking about Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' great closer who injured himself shagging flies in the outfield, and the first thing I thought was notable is that the closer is the guy who comes in at the end of the game and he gets the last outs if he's good enough. And, you know, this is a physical skill but we saw just how important the mental aspect of it was.

MARTIN: It's a lot of pressure.

PESCA: Exactly. And I think maybe people who study statistics, the Saber Metrics community, who are the stat-minded guys, that guys that were emphasized in the movie "Money Ball," would say any good pitcher could do that. It's not true. The Yankees had a great pitcher, David Robertson, and they said, all right, we'll put him into the closer role. This guy doesn't give up hits. And he was just shellacked in this first couple of outings. So, Mariano's virtues went well beyond his cutter. And the second thing I'd say about Mariano is: games finished. He was on the mound when the Yankees won. In fact, in our imagination, he correlates to winning more than any other player. It's him shaking the catcher's hand or getting a hug from the first baseman. And that's one of the reasons why when he went down, even Red Sox fans and Mets fans were pretty sad, just because this guy was a winner.

MARTIN: You're winner, too. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks, as always, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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