Concussions are one of many injuries sustained by professional football players. But unlike those to the arm, knee, or back, concussions and similar head injuries weren’t properly treated for much of the NFL’s history. In fact, those in charge spent years denying the severity of the problem, or that there was even a problem at all.
Willie Frazier’s career in professional football lasted from 1964-1975. During that time, he played for the Houston Oilers, the San Diego Chargers, the Kansas City Chiefs, and others. He was a 1965, 1967, and 1969 AFL All-Star, and in 1965, an All-Pro. Fifteen years after Willie retired, he began complaining to his wife, Bobbie, about a persistent dizziness. He said this feeling was sometimes so intense it felt as if the walls around him were closing in. He and Bobbie decided it was time to seek professional help. After visiting a neurologist, Willie was told the feelings of dizziness he was experiencing were an early symptom of Parkinson’s Disease. The problem eventually became so severe he had trouble simply getting around.
Willie wasn’t alone. Provost Umphrey began speaking to players just like him, players who had suffered repeated head injuries over the course of their careers and now, years later, had developed symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and confusion. These became progressively worse as time went by and in many cases led to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other neurocognitive impairments.
The NFL continued to claim the injuries suffered by its players were not the cause of these problems. However, Provost Umphrey discovered that, while making these claims, the NFL had paid benefits to at least three players due to disabilities stemming from concussions. One player, former Pittsburgh Steelers star lineman Mike Webster, died in 2002. Upon his death he was examined and found to be showing signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. Independent doctors confirmed that his condition was the result of repeated blows to the head. It was clear the NFL knew more than it was letting on.
More players came forward, and the number represented by Provost Umphrey and other law firms eventually grew to several hundred. As the problem began to receive national attention, with more doctors coming forward to present their findings, the connection between these players’ conditions and the injuries they had sustained in their years on the field became clear.
Crossing the Goal Line
Provost Umphrey Law Firm, along with other firms, represented hundreds of former players in the Multi-District Litigation, when a historic, uncapped settlement with the NFL for over $1 billion was ultimately achieved by the team of law firms in 2013 and finally implemented in January 2017.
As part of the settlement, players were eligible to receive up to five million dollars based on several criteria, including a player’s specific diagnosis and the number of years they had played the game. In addition, players would be provided with screenings in order to monitor their medical condition and be aware of any conditions that might develop. A week after the settlement was reached, Willie Frazier died.
These injuries affected thousands of players. According to a July 2017 study published by the Journal of American Medical Association on football players and CTE, among the 111 deceased former NFL players used in the study, 110 were diagnosed with CTE. While some players came forward, told their stories and received widespread attention, there are others who said nothing, either for their own reasons or because they were unaware of what was happening to them. Because of this, a full and accurate understanding of this problem and all those it’s affected may never be realized.
Fortunately, the attention this issue has now received has increased our understanding of how these injuries affect athletes and led to preventative measures being taken not only in professional sports, but also at the high school and college levels. For those players represented by Provost Umphrey, we were able to make sure they were compensated for their injuries, get them the care they needed, and ensure the players who came after them wouldn’t face the same problems.