This post is by guest journalist, Terry Ott. You may remember some of his work posted here previously in the seven-part series looking into concussions and possible long-term issues (you can click on links within the post to read all parts). With the Canadian Football League avoiding a work stoppage by ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement and play about to begin Ott brings us a follow-up story.
The Canadian Football League season is set to kick-off on June 26 culminating with the 102st Grey Cup in Vancouver in November. With a new team-the rather unusually named Ottawa RedBlacks–two new stadiums, a recently ratified 5 year collective bargaining agreement between the players and the board of governors that still leaves the owners with a major financial upper hand, and the ever-increasing fan interest in Canada and even south of the border, it would appear the CFL has landed in a cozy albeit modest pro sports sweet spot.
However, there is that not so little matter concerning the past, and especially the future…
Weird Scenes Inside The 110 Yard Gridiron After my 7 part series on concussions in the CFL appeared at the end of last year, both Concussion Blog founder
Dustin Fink and I both had the same question:Why has the CFL (apparently) not been sued for concussion-related damages? And just where are all the players who played and suffered serious concussions that affected their quality of life after football? How could the CFL possibly be that much different from the NFL?
The CFL has been knocking and sometimes scrambling heads for well over 100 years and yet not a single class action lawsuit for damages due to concussion has yet been filed. It is possible that at some point in the past, singular concussion related lawsuits have been undertaken and settled out of court and bound by confidentiality agreement so they were never reported on but other than that possibility, it would almost appear that the CFL somehow exists in some bizarre twilight zone of brain injury legal non-culpability and/or amnesty.
Eric “The Flea” Allen came out of Michigan State in 1972 and the highly rated multi-purpose back was the 104st player chosen in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Colts.
However, 42 years ago, the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts under then head coach Leo Cahill had a reputation for scooping up potential NFL standouts-Joe Theismann for one-with, among other things, suitcases of cash and high salaries with a promise to be starter, and a star.
Thus, “The Flea,” became an Argonaut, and Theismann, who later became a legend in the NFL, his quarterback.
“The Flea”, with break-away speed and great ball sense went on to star for the Argos for four seasons gaining close to 3000 overall yards.
Then, with his degree in hospitality from Michigan State, Allen made a fine life for himself in Canada after football.
But Allen, now 63, is no longer employed. He has returned to South Carolina to be cared for by his elderly mother and five-day a week visiting home care professionals and is being treated at the Medical University of South Carolina for Parkinson’s-like symptoms, believed by Allen and his doctors to be the result of multiple concussions suffered during his playing days in the CFL.
In a recent telephone interview, Allen, who said he had at least four major concussions and returned to play in the same game after each incident, complained of severe headaches, dizziness and memory issues and said he was taking the Parkinson’s drug levodopa carbidopa although he also said it was “not working.”
Allen, when asked about returning to play after his concussions said of the team doctor, “I don’t think he looked at me,” and also said that recently he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer-like symptoms.
And Allen’s mother, Rebecca, said that Eric complains that “his head spins” and she said he had been falling, “a lot,” recently.
The family is now interested in finding a lawyer to discuss a possible lawsuit against the CFL for damages allegedly from concussions related to Allen’s playing career in Canada.
Finally, former Hamilton Tiger Cats running back, Phil Colwell, who was featured in the first installment of Third Down: Absence of CTE To Go continues to have serious, deteriorating memory and mood problems that he attributes to his many concussions received while playing in the CFL and is making noises about taking legal action against the league. He is terrified that he may develop CTE.
Colwell, who said he has repeatedly e-mailed the Tiger Cats without a response, was also particularly peeved at the Canadian Football League Alumni Association, whose communications director did not, according to Colwell, reply to several e-mails asking for assistance.
The Bargaining Chip
Under the heading of better pretty late than never, the Canadian Football Players Association under new president Scott Flory, a former CFL player, had begun to at least publicly demand better protection for their member players from the wrath of concussions.
The CFLPA in their initial 2014 collective bargaining proposal to the league was asking for third-party neurological assessment of any player diagnosed with a concussion which would for the CFL, bring it in line with the NFL protocol, and be a major improvement of the current situation wherein the team doctor-who in theory could be anything from an internist to an andrologist-was the usual arbitrator of treatment and return to play.
However, as was opined by one of the very few major Canadian sportswriters who will dialogue with me, the CFLPA was really most concerned with money issues and the proposed third-party neurological assessment after concussion would appear to have been mostly a part of the negotiations/bargaining process.
When the 2014 CFL/CFLPA collective bargaining agreement was given the thumbs up by the players on June 12 after some initial balking, the CFLPA’s third-party neurological assessment after concussion demand was nowhere to seen.
So, I’d reckon there are at least a few lawyers out there licking their class action chops over this penny wise and ultimately pound foolish decision.
The CFL can still presently run from concussions and their aftermath, but, can they hide? No, they can not.
And once again, the league and its players are on the wrong side of history.
I would have liked to ask the CFL and CFLPA about the issue, but they did not respond to any of my recent e-mail inquiries.
A Tale Of Two HOF QBs
Ever hear of Matt Dunigan? He is the veteran, multiple Grey Cup winning Hall of Fame CFL quarterback whose brilliant career ended on the playing surface of Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario in July 1996 when Dunigan received the last of a series of concussions while playing 14 seasons for five CFL teams.
Now, Dunigan, 53, is sort of the “face” of football concussions in Canada even though his position as an outspoken pre-game commentator and sometime analyst for the CFL’s host broadcaster, TSN, would appear to put him in a sort of sticky wicket position.
Yet don’t get me wrong: I have respect for Dunigan as a former player and current broadcaster. He was, and probably still is one tough, talented, gutsy dude.
But he, and the many other current and former CFL players who have suffered concussions are facing an unknown and quite frankly, a possible scary quality of life and health future including developing CTE, a devastating and inevitably fatal disease.
And although Dunigan has talked openly about his memory problems and other health concerns usually attributed to post-concussive syndrome, he presently earns a living from his association with the CFL and does not appear willing at this time to rock the boat or even be an advocate for taking the league to task for what some consider a “hope it goes away” policy concerning former players who find themselves with serious concussion-related injury and symptoms.
Perhaps Dunigan can sympathize with former Miami Dolphins NFL HOF quarterback Dan Marino who recently signed on, and then quickly off a new lawsuit against the NFL for damages from concussion injury.
Some press reports of Marino’s seemingly odd volte-face indicate that Dan may have been seeking a management position with the Dolphins, and, well, in the vernacular, having a team official party to even more legals against the league may be bad for business, biting the hand that feeds, etc.
The Mostly MIA Media
In part further to the above, there appears lately to be little-if any-will in the Canadian media to seriously address the plight of former CFL players with football related brain injury.
Perhaps the editors and reporters in Canada do not sense that their readers are interested in this story but at least theoretically, the media is supposed to working in the public interest. Besides, one would also think that from a business reporting standpoint alone, an issue that could threaten the very financial viability of the league would be worth addressing by somebody else besides your not-giving-up-yet correspondent.
Accordingly, an interesting comparison can be made between ESPN and Canada’s TSN. Both are broadcasters of pro football for their respective leagues.
However, that’s where many of the comparisons end.
Despite paying hundreds of millions of dollars for some of the television rights to NFL games, ESPN allowed two of their ace investigative reporters to essentially blow the lid off the NFL’s refusal to address the concussion issue, resulting in the ground-breaking, shocking League of Denial book, and the PBS documentary of the same name in 2013.
Here in Canada, TSN’s CFL writer, Dave Naylor, rarely addresses the league’s handling of concussions and despite three attempts to reach him-a fact confirmed by TSN’s audience relations via e-mail-never responded to my e-mails requesting a dialogue about concussions in the CFL.
I’ll leave it to you to decide why.
All of the other many, major Canadian media I contacted about concussions in the CFL except for the KW Record for which I wrote an article, Doug Brown, a former CFL player now writing a spirited column for the Winnipeg Free Press, Daniel Nugent-Bowman of the Star-Phoenix (who wrote a recent piece on Dunigan) and Andrew Bucholtz who writes the 55 Yard Line CFL Blog for Yahoo! Canada Sports never so much as returned an e-mail. But Bucholtz, eventually even had the guts to link to my series for The Concussion Blog.
Again, I’ll leave it you to decide why even if strictly only on the basis of professional courtesy, why any kind of reply was withheld from all the others that I contacted over the past 6 months.
FINALLY…Good or bad medicine?
In the United States, the world-class researchers at Boston University who were featured inLeague of Denial found dozens of case of CTE among former NFL players, and also one caseof a former CFL player stricken with the disease.
The BU researchers have no doubt that CTE and related brain trauma from football concussions is a clear and present danger to football players and therefore a threat to the game.
In Canada, Dr. Charles Tator a researcher of CTE at the University of Toronto who has received some funding from the CFL for his research continues to produce studies that caution a diagnosis of CTE even though his own study of 6 former CFL players found that in fact, half had the disease.
In 2012, at the Zurich Concussion Conference, Dr. Tator was part of what I was told was a “contentious debate” that resulted in the following “consensus” statement:
“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.”
Surely the good doctors were not referring to “media pressure” from Canada.
Terry Ott encourages feedback. He can be reached at email@example.com