Former Vikings lineman takes on NFL players union over concussions
Joe Bielawa Christian Ballard (99) and teammates in a 2012 game
Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe once again hurled himself into the Twin Cities football spotlight last week, threatening to file a lawsuit against his former team for wrongfully firing him over his support for LGBT rights.
But while all the attention's been on Kluwe, another potentially huge lawsuit is brewing in St. Louis, where another former Viking is is taking on the issue of concussions, alleging in a lawsuit that over the past few decades, his own union has covered up the dangers and health risks of concussions as part of a conspiracy with the NFL.
Christian Ballard, a former defensive lineman for the Vikings from 2011-2012, filed the suit last week in St. Louis. And the allegations inside are pretty damning.
The case says that Ballard and the other plaintiff, former linebacker Greg Westbrooks, put their trust in the NFL Players Association (the union for NFL players) to protect and defend them over the past few decades, including educating them about the health risks that come from the repeated the sport's repeated head trauma and concussions. But, the complaint alleges, the association failed. Badly.
"When presented with information from such medical consultants regarding health risks associated with concussive and sub-concussive injuries, [the NFL Players Association] ignored, concealed, and turned a blind eye to such information," the complaint says.
Both Ballard and Westbrooks talk about their own brain injuries, including a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Their allegations go as far back as 20 years ago, when the complaint says the NFLPA received a report showing that players had an increased risk of nervous system disorders like Lou Gehrig's Disease and ALS. But the complaint says those results were never heard by players.
The NFLPA "instead concealed the results of the study," the complaint alleges. " [The NFLPA] further supplied false and misleading information regarding the risk of harm to then-current and former professional football players, their families, and the general public."
From there, it just gets worse. The suit then talks about the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, a committee formed in 1994 by the NFL (with input from the NFLPA) to investigate brain trauma in the league. As PBS outlines here as part of its "League of Denial" report, the MBTI remained skeptical of any links between concussions and brain damage through 2007, despite many cases and scientific studies pointing in the opposite direction.
Through the MBTI's research, the suit says, the NFL and NFLPA "acted in concert to perpetrate the fraudulent concealment of the connection between repetitive [traumatic brain injuries] and long-term neuro-cognitive damage, illness, and decline."
The players' association denied any of the allegations in a statement, saying, "It erroneously alleges that the NFLPA knowingly and fraudulently concealed from players the risks of head injuries players faced by playing in NFL games and practices over the last several decades. This lawsuit has no merit and we will defend our union and our past Presidents."
In recent years, former players have taken the NFL to task for how they've handled concussions, with nearly 5,000 players suing the league to cover the treatments for illnesses like dementia and Lou Gehrig's Disease. The players and NFL originally settled for $675 million to cover those costs, but last month, that cap was lifted, meaning the league could wind up paying a whole lot more.