Ex-players know NFL concussion deal will prompt hard choices

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)July 15, 2014 

Somewhere in the 163-page National Football League concussion settlement there is presumably help for Matt Blair, the former Minnesota Vikings All-Pro linebacker who is now 63 and has increasing memory problems.

Blair said he played through two concussions during his football days, although compared with some of his Vikings teammates he feels fortunate he can continue a freelance photography career. But he said his forgetfulness goes beyond what someone his age should be experiencing. "If someone tells me something right away, I just don't remember it right away," said Blair, who said he has not been medically diagnosed with a memory-loss disease. "I can feel it and know that it shouldn't be that way."

Critics of the settlement, which a federal judge in Pennsylvania tentatively approved last week, said Blair is typical of many of the estimated 20,000 former NFL players who will be asked to endorse the plan: They will have to decide whether to accept it before knowing whether they will ever get a dime from it.

Chris Seeger, the co-lead counsel for the retired NFL players who are supporting the settlement, said however that Blair and others like him will also need to think about something else: If they opt out of the agreement, they will be on their own in trying to prove that any dementia or other brain trauma was caused by playing in the NFL. Under the agreement, any former player with an approved diagnosis will not have to show that the injury came from playing in the NFL.

"It offers 1/8Blair3/8 a lot," Seeger, speaking from New Jersey, said of the settlement.

With the legal battle lines now drawn - and with former players having until Oct. 14 to opt out of the deal - lawyers are trying to sell the plan as the best deal they will likely get from the NFL, while other attorneys will be trying to amass enough opt outs to undermine the settlement.

Since 2011, more than 5,000 former players have filed concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL, and the settlement's effects will be felt among hundreds of former Vikings and University of Minnesota and other local college players who had NFL careers. One early lawsuit, featuring 370 former players, included former Vikings Jim Marshall and Fred McNeill.

Former Gopher tight end Ben Utecht testified before the Senate Committee on Aging in Washington in June regarding concussions. Matt Birk, the former Vikings center who has assumed a high profile on player issues since retiring, said he had at least three football-related concussions.

"I think the only money that the NFL will ever pay on concussion-related injuries are in this settlement," said Seeger, who acknowledged he is concerned that attorneys opposed to the proposal will be working to convince players not to accept it. Seeger said that should final approval come by Jan. 1, some former players could obtain money by next April or May.

Nearly 30 years after retiring from football, Blair talked haltingly from his home in suburban Plymouth about the settlement and said he often gets annoyed at himself over his forgetfulness. "Just little things really kick my butt," he said. He also talked of McNeill, whom he called his "best friend" on the team, and how McNeill now "can't be left alone" because of a debilitating illness related to dementia.

Blair remembered his own football concussions but also recalled shrugging them off at the time. "I've had concussions, but I went on and finished my career," said Blair, an All-America at Iowa State University. Blair was a second-round draft choice for the Vikings in 1974, was selected for six consecutive Pro Bowls (1977-82) and played in two Super Bowls.

At 6-5, 235-pounds, Blair was known for his athleticism and speed that helped result in 20 blocked kicks - third most in NFL history.

He remains fit physically, but he says the forgetfulness seems to have worsened in recent years. "In the past, it was OK. Right now, it's getting a little bit worse," he said. "My wife, half the time, 1/8she says3/8 'Don't you remember what I said?'

"I'm just thinking, well, it could be part of the concussion side of it," said Blair. Three years ago, Blair lobbied lawmakers in Iowa to pass legislation to protect children from traumatic head injuries. "I just know something has been happening here, the last three or four years," he said of his own situation.

The proposed settlement would most help those with brain injuries diagnosed at a younger age - a former player under age 45 with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease could get as much as $3.5 million. A former player over age 65 with the same diagnosis could get no more than $620,000.

The proposal also would help those who played longer. Monetary awards would be reduced for those who played for less than five NFL seasons. If a former player played in only four eligible seasons, the amount of money would be reduced by 20 percent. Three eligible seasons would lead to a 40 percent reduction.

Though U.S. District Judge Anita Brody said Monday she endorsed the revised proposal in part because a $675 million monetary award cap for NFL payments was removed, other controversies in the plan remain.

One involves chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated trauma that is a suspected leading cause of football-related head injuries. Some of the NFL's most celebrated players - including former San Diego Charger Junior Seau, who committed suicide - had CTE diagnosed. Locally, former Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg died in 2008 and was later diagnosed with CTE after a long career that included playing - at one point, with Blair - on the Vikings' Super Bowl teams of the 1970s.

Under the plan, former players with a CTE diagnosis can get a maximum payment of $4 million - but the proposal would make CTE payments only following a formal diagnosis after a player's death.

The controversy over CTE was intensified early last year when researchers at UCLA, in a pilot study, found images of the protein that causes brain damage in living players - a sign that scientists may be close to diagnosing CTE in living patients.

Bob Stein, a former Vikings player and attorney who is now representing onetime NFL players, criticized the settlement's position on CTE. "Why would you exclude the diagnosis that appears to be the most prevalent 1/8in3/8 virtually all retired players so far who have died and had autopsies done?" he asked.

"Is there technology in medicine to identify it while you're living? It appears that that's either available, or on the horizon," Stein added.

Seeger said the CTE questions missed a larger point: The proposed settlement would give monetary awards to an array of conditions - including early and moderate dementia, Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 1/8ALS3/8 and Parkinson's disease - that in many cases are symptoms of CTE. Awards for ALS, under the settlement, could reach $5 million per player.

"If you have any of these diseases, 1/8whether3/8 you have CTE or not, you get paid," said Seeger.

Blair was one of the stars in Super Bowl IX - he blocked a punt that was recovered in the end zone for the Vikings' only points in a 16-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, he said, he has trouble remembering his teammates' names. "1/8That3/8 affects me, big time," Blair said. "I can't even remember half their names."

Blair said he intends to study the proposed settlement and hopes the NFL has the best interests of its players at heart. "I don't know how that's going to come into play," he said of the settlement. The NFL "should drop back down and help the ones that created" the league. "They need to give us a little bit more money."

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