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Conspiracy theories bogus, but football lawsuits have important purpose

Posted: January 15, 2014 - 1:01am

One team and four scenes, split in the middle by lawsuits with ramifications far beyond football. It’s impossible not to wonder if there’s a connection.

But look beyond the easy conspiracy theory and there is a critical point here — one that would be a shame to miss.

— Scene one: Sept. 29, the fourth game of the Chiefs’ season, late in the first half. Right tackle Eric Fisher pulls from his position to block for Jamaal Charles on a sweep. The play call has tight end Sean McGrath running the opposite direction, away from the action, and in the chaos of an NFL snap, he and Fisher collide.

Fisher runs through the contact and finishes the play. As he walks back toward the huddle, he grabs his facemask and shakes his head a bit. It doesn’t look like much. He stays in for the following play, and holds his block on a pass attempt, but is later diagnosed with a concussion and misses the Chiefs’ next game.

— Scene two: Dec. 22, the 15th game of the Chiefs’ season, late in the second half. Dwayne Bowe runs a short slant route over the middle. The ball is thrown low, and Bowe goes down to attempt the catch. He ends up on the ground, facing the line of scrimmage, when Colts safety Laron Landry comes through and knocks him in the back of the head.

Bowe remains on the ground, grabbing at the front of his head, then the back. Landry is called for a personal foul. As Bowe walks off the field, the announcer says, “That hurt.” Bowe sits out one play, then returns and finishes the game. One more pass is thrown his way, and he does not catch it. He is later diagnosed with a concussion and misses the Chiefs’ next game.

— Scene three: Jan. 4, the Chiefs’ playoff game, which will be remembered for very different reasons. On the sixth play of the Chiefs’ 45-44 loss to the Colts, Charles takes the ball through the right side of the line and is tripped by a defensive back. As he’s going down, he is clipped by a defensive lineman. Charles lays on the turf, face down. This will be his last play. Charles is walked back to the locker room, diagnosed with a concussion.

— Scene four: Later in the same game, Chiefs defensive back Brandon Flowers sprints after a Colts running back near the goal line. Flowers is there a split-second too late, but his momentum carries him across the sideline and off the field, where he spins to the ground. The back of his head bangs against teammate Marcus Cooper’s leg. Flowers lays on the turf, on his back. This will be his last play. He is walked back to the locker room, diagnosed with a concussion.

Before the playoff game but after those first two scenes, a string of lawsuits is filed against the Chiefs by former players alleging mistreatment regarding head injuries and concussions.

The most fascinating is a wrongful-death suit filed by the mother of former Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who appeared to get knocked in the head and was slow to get up after what turned out to be the last tackle of his life. Belcher was not officially diagnosed with a concussion and played the next week, though not as much as he had in the first 10 games of the 2012 season. A week after that, he killed his girlfriend and then himself.

This particular lawsuit alleges that Belcher “unknowingly sacrificed his brain” during a four-year NFL career with the Chiefs. It also alleges that the team failed to protect Belcher and knew, or should’ve known, that he showed signs of cognitive and neuro-psychiatric impairment.

Now the dots are being connected, on message boards and on barstools and in casual conversations all around town: The Chiefs did not immediately remove players from games before the lawsuits were filed, but they sure did after.

This is a classic conspiracy theory, and not just because a Chiefs spokesman this week was adamant that the team has always followed the NFL’s protocols on concussion treatments, both before and after the lawsuits.

It is a conspiracy theory because there are holes you could stick nose tackle Dontari Poe through. Concussions come in many shades. The hit Fisher took was subtle, for instance — it didn’t even knock him over. Charles and Flowers, meanwhile, were on the ground after clear collisions.

Also, the Chiefs are not alone here. Concussions are often difficult to detect. Just last week, the league cited two players for violating concussion protocol during last weekend’s first-round playoff games. One, a Packers lineman, returned to the game despite being examined for a concussion and not cleared. Another, a Saints cornerback, remained on the sideline instead of going to the locker room for a requisite evaluation.

In 2011, the Chargers’ medical staff was investigated (and later cleared) regarding its treatment of lineman Kris Dielman, who continued to play in a game despite struggling to keep his balance. He was later diagnosed with a concussion, suffered a seizure on the flight back to San Diego and never played again. More recently, San Diego lineman Nick Hardwick suffered a concussion that wasn’t diagnosed until after last weekend’s playoff game against the Bengals.

You might remember October 2012, when then-Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn was knocked in the back of his helmet by a defender’s knee. Quinn later admitted having vision problems after the hit and was so fazed that he tried to put on a teammate’s helmet between possessions. After he threw an interception to a defensive back he later said he didn’t see, Quinn came out of the game.

In theory, it sounds great to simply remove a player from the game immediately after a concussion. The reality is much more complicated than that.

There is enough anecdotal evidence that Bennet Omalu, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and is the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County in California, told me last month that he “would bet one month’s salary that (Belcher) had CTE.”

CTE, of course, is a degenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries that has been linked to depression, dementia, confusion, memory loss, aggression and even suicide in some former NFL players.

Now, let’s be clear here. Even if the Chiefs failed to properly protect Belcher, and even if that failure caused changes in Belcher’s brain, that is a very different thing than the Chiefs being legally responsible for Belcher’s monstrous act.

But now — big finish — comes the critical point that’s almost completely missed by the conspiracy theorists.

We’re seeing progress. Real progress, in real time. There is more attention on head injuries now than ever before, which is imperative if football is to continue to thrive as both a business and national passion.

Unless you are related to Belcher or Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, you have no personal stake in the outcome of that particular lawsuit. You will not financially profit or pay, no matter how it turns out.

But we — all of us: parents, football fans, curious citizens — might be able to gain something else in the process.

If the lawsuit reaches the discovery phase — probably a long shot, because this would be against the best interests of the Chiefs and the NFL — we would get an unprecedented view of how the sausage is made: a better idea of the progress realized in recent years in regards to the diagnosis and treatment of head injuries, and how much more work still lies ahead.

But even if the lawsuit dies on a judge’s order or settlement that includes a confidentiality clause, we’re still seeing a nudge of progress from the questions being raised.

Many people inside of both the football and scientific communities believe that the changes the NFL has made have come in large part as a response to pressure from the media and general public. That must continue. That Chiefs’ fans are noticing and raising questions about how concussions are being treated is good. It’s a small sign, but an important one if football is to continue to thrive as a business, a national passion and a sport that parents can feel good letting their children play.

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