NFL Retirees Contest $765M Settlement; Doctor Challenges Assumptions of That Challenge

NFL Retirees Contest $765M Settlement; Doctor Challenges Assumptions of That Challenge

A lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Philadelphia contends that the $765 settlement between the National Football League and retired players doesn’t provide enough funds to cover the football-related ailments of all former NFL competitors.

Attorney Steven Molo challenged the $765 million settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players on behalf of seven retired competitors who believe they have symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that can be diagnosed only upon autopsy. The settlement awards funds to the families of players discovered with CTE upon their deaths but cuts off cases of CTE diagnosed subsequent to the agreement, an arrangement, the players argue, that will shortchange them. Federal Judge Anita Brody has already ordered a delay in the settlement largely because the money pool doesn’t add up for the number of potential claimants.

This animating principle of the motion clashes with a new article in Neuropsychiatry by Dr. Hal Wortzel of the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Wortzel points out in “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Should We Be Worried?” that CTE researchers lack a single cross-sectional or longitudinal study upon which to base claims of causation, disagree among themselves on a clinical definition for the disease, and attribute symptoms to the condition that overlap with other brain diseases making clinical diagnosis of CTE impossible.

“Both the public’s and clinicians’ understanding of CTE has been chiefly shaped by mass media,” Wortzel points out. “Unfortunately, many news reports provide a somewhat unbalanced picture of CTE research. The media often present scientific theory as medical fact and seldom elaborate on significant methodological limitations.”

The seven players filing suit Monday, for instance, point to depression, problems sleeping, and memory deficit as evidence of emerging CTE. But Wortzel’s earlier article indicates that common symptoms like these could come from any number of causes aside from brain trauma. He writes, “The expansive and nonspecific emerging syndrome profile proposed for CTE spans an extraordinarily broad array of extremely common physical complaints and cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral problems.” Wortzel’s notion that symptoms can be “superficially consistent” with CTE without the patient suffering from the malady finds affirmation in a 2013 study of deceased Canadian Football League players that discovered that half the study cohort didn’t exhibit CTE upon autopsy despite clinically showing signs of the disease in life.

Wortzel notes that in the largest study of NFL players to date, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health established decreased overall mortality, brain-disease death rates not dramatically different from those found in the general population, and radically diminished instances of suicide despite a purported linkage between CTE and athletes killing themselves. A January series by Breitbart Sports on suicide and the NFL resulted in a retraction of a shocking statistic purporting a six-times-the-national-average suicide rate in the NFL that had made its way into the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, and other major media outlets over the course of a decade. Wortzel dubs the discredited linkage between football and suicide, as well as football and off-field violence, “overly reductionist formulations for complex human behaviors.”

The seven players challenging the settlement in litigation filed Monday are nine-year special teams player Sean Morey; former Cowboys linebacker Jeff Rohrerand; Sean Considine, a retired safety and special teams contributor who won a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens two seasons ago; nine-time Pro Bowl lineman Alan Faneca; longtime Broncos guard Ben Hamilton; Robert Royal, a tight end who played nine seasons with three teams; and Rock Cartwright, formerly of the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders. None of the seven joined the initial master suit against the NFL, which, unlike Monday’s litigation by several noteworthy retired pros, includes hundreds of players who never made regular season rosters.

Wortzel’s advice to the majority of his own patients, if not the seven litigants, is that they “need not be” worried about CTE after a concussion. And he worries that worry, i.e., anxiety, resulting from the hyper-interest in CTE creates a whole new set of problems for patients and doctors. Specifically, the doctor stresses that the vast majority of instances of a mild traumatic brain injury [TBI] result in complete recovery even if media hype results in those suffering from a concussion to envision a darker outcome.

Ultimately, the conclusions made in the press about concussions just don’t find support in the existing medical research the professor of psychiatry notes in this popular science article reflective of his recent scholarship in the academic press. Wortzel concludes, “Preliminary results derived from relatively small case series and methodologically problematic studies should not dictate policy over the more robustly established medical research on mild TBI.”