Football Concussion Injury Litigation

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Dementia pugilistica

Known by a whole host of different names, including punch-drunk syndrome, dementia pugilistica (DP) or chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a type of neurodegenerative disease or dementia caused by repeated concussive of sub-concussive blows (hits just below the force required to cause concussion).

Forensic pathologist Dr. Harrison Stanford Martland was among the first to describe this condition in his article “Punch Drunk,” which was published in the October 13, 1928 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association:

[S]ome time fight fans and promoters have recognized a peculiar condition occurring among prize fighters which, in ring parlance, they speak of as “punch drunk.” Fighters in whom the early symptoms are well recognized are said by the fans to be “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “cutting paper dolls,” or “slug nutty.” Frequently it takes a fighter from one to two hours to recover from a severe blow to the head or jaw.1

While boxing gave the condition a name, football players were experiencing similar injuries. In 1893, U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman and football player Joseph M. Reeves was warned by a Navy doctor that another blow to the head could cause “instant insanity” or death. Reeves commissioned a local shoemaker to create what is now believed to be the first football helmet, so that he could play in the Army-Navy game. (Fortunately for Reeves, he avoided further injury and would later become better known as Admiral “Bull” Reeves, the “Father of Carrier Aviation.”)

In 1913, football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner commented that he had “many times seen cases when hard bumps on the head so dazed the player receiving them that he lost his memory for a time and had to be removed from the game.” The medical community was also becoming concerned over the damage repeated concussions have on physical, emotional, and mental health. The following list reflects just some of the long-standing knowledge surrounding the debilitating effects of CTE and dementia:

  • Fisher CM. “Concussion amnesia.” Neurology (1966) 16:826-830.
  • Payne, EE. “Brains of boxers” Neurochirurgia (1968) Sep;11(5):173-88.
  • John Johnson M.D., M.R.C.P.E., D.P.M. “Organic Psychosyndromes due to Boxing.” The British Journal of Psychiatry(1969) 115: 45-53.
  • Roberts, Anthony Herbers. Brain Damage in Boxers: A study of the prevalence of traumatic encephalopathy among ex-professional boxers. London: Pitman Medical & Scientific Publishing Co., Ltd., 1969.
  • Yarnell PR, Lynch S. “Retrograde Memory Immediately After Concussion.” The Lancet (1970) 295(7652):863-864.
  • In 1973, a disabling and sometimes deadly condition involving the second impact concussion occurring before symptoms of a first concussion was described by R.C. Schneider. This later was coined the Second Impact Syndrome in 1984.
  • Corsellis JA, Bruton CJ, Freeman-Browne D. “The Aftermath of Boxing.” Psychology Medicine (1973) Aug;3(3):270-303.
  • Ommaya AK, Gennarelli TA. “Cerebral Concussion and Traumatic Unconsciousness: Correlation of experimental and clinical observations of blunt head injuries.” Brain (1974) 97: 633-654
  • Harvey PK, Davis JN. “Traumatic Encephalopathy in a Young Boxer.” Lancet (1974) Oct 19;2(7886):928-9.
  • Gronwall D, Wrightson P.”Delayed Recovery of Intellectual Function After Minor Head Injury.” Lancet (1974) Sep 14;2(7881):605-9.
  • Gronwall D, Wrightson P. “Cumulative Effect of Concussion” Lancet (1975) 306 (7943): 995-997.
  • Corsellis, JAN. “Posttraumatic dementia.” Aging (1978) 7:125-133.

Despite this widely available and easily accessible information, the National Football League (NFL) did not enact league-wide guidelines or mandatory rules regulating post-concussion medical treatment and return-to-play standards until 2007. This change came far too late for retired football players from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, many of whom are not eligible for medical benefits from the NFL. The NFL does not recognize dementia as a football-related injury.


Football Concussion Litigation: NFL

The NFL‘s efforts to protect players from concussions and their after-effects, have been weak at best and nonexistent at worst. It wasn’t until 1994 that the NFL finally created the “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.” Oddly, the doctor selected to chair the committee was hardly the obvious choice: Dr. Elliot Pellman was a rheumatologist with no certification as to brain injuries and/or concussions.

Over the next fourteen years, the NFL‘s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee published numerous journal articles. A summary article published in 2006 (“Concussion in professional football: summary of the research conducted by the National Football League’s Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury”) analyzing collected “data on mild TBIs sustained between 1996 and 2001” concluded that:

“[b]ecause a significant percentage of players returned to play in the same game [as they suffered a mild traumatic brain injury] and the overwhelming majority of players with concussions were kept out of football-related activities for less than 1 week, it can be concluded that mild TBIs in professional football are not serious injuries.” 2

This kind of circular reasoning defies logic and implies that a speedy return to play after concussion is itself an indicator player health and not simply the result of poor guidance for or decision making on the part of players. Players who should not be making medical judgments and, in fact, may have impaired mental faculties at the time of their decision if it is made shortly after suffering a concussion.

A 2005 study by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found that NFL players who suffered three or more concussions are five times more likely to have mild cognitive impairment and three times more likely to have significant memory loss when compared to players without a history of concussion. Despite this and other studies surrounding the short and long-term affects of concussions and traumatic brain injuries, it was not until 2007 that the NFL finally adopted league-wide concussion guidelines.


Helmets and Riddell

It wasn’t until 2002 that Riddell (makers of the official NFL helmets) introduced their “Revolution” helmet, the first helmet designed to reduce concussions. They claimed wearers would be 30% less susceptible to concussion. Popular Mechanics noted that “even with its innovations, the Revolution sticks to the standard football-helmet format of a polycarbonate shell with internal foam padding that Riddell first introduced 70 years ago.3


Experienced Help & Answers to Your Questions

Since 2007, Shareholder Jason Luckasevic has been actively investigating and exploring cases for retired NFL players. To have your case evaluated by Jason Luckasevic, please contact him at 1-800-471-3980 or by filling out the contact form.


1. Martland H; “Punch Drunk,” Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 91, October 13, 1928.

2. Pellman EJ, Viano DC; National Football League’s Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. “Concussion in professional football: summary of the research conducted by the National Football League’s Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury.” Neurosurgical Focus. 2006 Oct 15;21(4):E12.

3. Hasler, Joe P. “Head Games: How Helmet Tech Works in 7 Different Sports.” Popular Mechanics.



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