The mother of Jovan Belcher, the NFL linebacker who killed his girlfriend and then himself on December 1, 2012, has brought a lawsuit against the Kansas City Chiefs. The wrongful death complaint, filed in Independence, Missouri, lays blame at the NFL franchise for Belcher’s murder-suicide. The undrafted University of Maine standout played four seasons for Kansas City.
“Because of the untimely death of Decedent,” Cheryl Shepherd’s lawsuit against the Chiefs maintains, “Plaintiff has been, and in the future will be, deprived of services, support, and maintenance, guidance, companionship, comfort, and Plaintiff has sustained other damages which can be measured in money. Plaintiff has also incurred burial and other expenses as a direct result of the death of Decedent. By reason of the foregoing, Plaintiff has been damaged and is entitled to full and fair compensation.”
The litigation accuses the Chiefs organization of “mental abuse” and “bullying” to compel Belcher to play through brain injuries. It holds that Belcher had been knocked unconscious in a 2009 game against Jacksonville and dazed in competition against Cincinnati two weeks before his deadly rampage but that no single event led to the alleged insanity that brought on the murder-suicide: “Plaintiff’s occupational disease-related claims were not caused by a specific event during a single work shift injury.” The brief argues that the Chiefs owed Belcher “a duty to maintain a safe working environment.”
Because another Chiefs player, Jim Tyrer, also killed his wife and himself in 1980 after suffering financial difficulties–the suit implies that he suffered from undiagnosed football-related neurological ailments–the brief alleges that the Chiefs should have taken steps to prevent a similar outcome in Belcher’s case.
The lawsuit follows last month’s headline-grabbing exhumation of Belcher’s body to examine his brain for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurodegenerative disease first discovered in an NFL player about a decade ago. Despite Belcher killing himself by a gunshot wound to the head, and his body rotting in the ground for a little over a year, several brain scientists contacted by Breitbart Sports believe that it is possible for a belated autopsy to discover signs of the disease in the decedent.
“If the body has been embalmed and this would involve the brain,” Dr. Lili Naz-Hazrati of the University of Toronto noted, “the latter will be relatively well preserved.” Although no announcement has been issued regarding what, if any, brain maladies neuropathologists discovered in Belcher’s head beyond the gunshot wound, the 22-page suit references “CTE” 33 times. The complaint contends, for instance, that the Chiefs “and its agents represented to Decedent that the incidence and risks of CTE were not scientifically proven.”
If members of the Chiefs organization did make this claim, they would be supported by the existing science. “CTE represents a distinct tauopathy with an unknown incidence in athletic populations,” reads the consensus statement of the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport. “It was further agreed that a cause and effect relationship has not yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports. At present, the interpretation of causation in the modern CTE case studies should proceed cautiously. It was also recognized that it is important to address the fears of parents/athletes from media pressure related to the possibility of CTE.” More than two dozen of the world’s most prestigious figures in sports medicine crafted the November 2012 statement.
Other contentions made in the suit further suggest that the lawyers would have been wise to consult with reputable doctors before drafting their complaint. The litigation points to “disconcerting statistics of suicides” in the NFL despite the findings of a 2012 federal government study of every pension-vested player who competed between 1959 and 1988 that showed a suicide rate less than half that of the rate for the comparable male group in the US population. Elsewhere, the attorneys take issue with NFL literature that states: “Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems.” But a 2005 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “No Cumulative Effects for One or Two Previous Concussions,” supports that very contention.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of a $765 million settlement agreed to between the NFL and retired players who claimed that competing in the league led to brain ailments. The retirees alleged that the NFL shielded the dangers of football from them, a claim echoed in Ms. Shepherd’s wrongful death litigation.
“Over the course of a four-year career in the National Football League, Jovan unknowingly sacrificed his brain in order to provide for his family,” the legal action says of the linebacker who murdered his girlfriend and orphaned his daughter. “Tragically, the [Kansas City Chiefs’] wrongful conduct destroyed multiple lives, tore apart families and ultimately caused or contributed to cause Jovan’s death.”
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013).