Editor's note: Earlier this week, the mother of former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the team, alleging that her son was subjected to brain-damaging, on-the-job repetitive head trauma and that the Chiefs failed to provide adequate medical care for his injuries -- all of which may have factored into Belcher killing his girlfriend before committing suicide in December of 2012. What does the suit mean for the National Football League, and how does it fit into football's ongoing concussion crisis? The rundown:
So what is this case about?
A little over a year ago, Belcher fatally shot Kasandra Perkins -- his girlfriend and the mother of his infant daughter -- before driving to Kansas City's training facility, where he told then-Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and then-coach Romeo Crennel that "I need help! I wasn't able to get enough help," before shooting himself in the head.
The suit asserts that Belcher's behavior -- both the murder-suicide and erratic thoughts and actions preceding the killings -- stemmed from football-induced brain damage, brain damage that the Chiefs both caused and exacerbated through action and inaction.
Wait -- that makes it sound like the Chiefs are somehow responsible for both killings. Hogwash. This is a money grab, isn't it?
Actually, Belcher's mother Cheryl Shepherd is seeking a minimum of $15,000 in damages -- less than the sticker price of a 2013 Honda Civic. Also, her son and his girlfriend are dead. Does that sound like a callous money grab?
More likely, the suit is a kind of information grab -- an effort by Belcher's mother to uncover facts that will help her: a) better understand how and why her son committed such a horrific act; b) what, if any, responsibility the Chiefs (and by extension, the "League of Denial" NFL) bear in the situation.
Belcher pulled the trigger. The suit doesn't contend otherwise. But hey, thanks for stopping by, Pro Football Talk commenters.
So what did the Chiefs allegedly do wrong?
The suit makes three basic claims:
• The team failed to educate and warn Belcher about the neurological risks of concussions and head trauma, both short and long-term;
• The team failed to identify and remove Belcher from play after sustaining head trauma, instead encouraging him to play and sustain cumulative and compounding brain injury;
• The team failed to monitor or treat Belcher for resulting neurological dysfunction, including a failure to provide appropriate counseling. According to the suit:
… in the months leading up to Decedent's death, Defendant was aware of Decedent's symptoms and signs of cognitive and neuropsychiatric impairment. Defendant micromanaged virtually every aspect of Decedent's life when it came to his physical abilities to perform in the workplace, including analyzing his diet, speed, strength and body-mass index. Yet when it came to monitoring Decedent's mental health and neurological capacities, Defendant disregarded evidence of impairments and fostered an environment where Decedent was required to play through his injuries and become exposed to further neurological harm …
In short: The suit contends that the Chiefs should have acted on obvious signs that Belcher was hurt on the job by providing appropriate medical care, instead of compounding his brain injuries by allowing and encouraging him to play more football. Imagine a staggering, vomiting, speech-slurring patron at a bar. The bartender has a responsibility to cut that patron off -- and also a responsibility to not hand that patron a bottle of vodka while yelling "chug!"
Do we know that brain damage can cause dramatic changes in mood, thought, personality and behavior?
Do we know that getting hit in the head -- even while wearing a football helmet -- can cause brain damage?
Yes. Particularly when concussed individuals suffer additional brain trauma before the initial injury has healed. However, the types and extent of said damage are still being figured out.
Do we know that Belcher was suffering from brain damage, and that his brain damage was the result of both playing football and inadequate medical care from the Chiefs?
No. Based on publicly available information, it's impossible to answer those questions with any degree of certainty. Of course, the lawsuit argues "yes" on both counts. It describes Belcher as a "loving father, son, teammate and advocate for victims of domestic violence" who ended up suffering "severe and persistent headaches, [post-concussion syndrome], depression, mood swings, explosivity, suicidal ideations, irresistible and insane impulses" and "neurologic dysfunction such as [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]."
Hmmm. CTE. Isn't that the same degenerative neurological disease that was found in the brains of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, all of whom exhibited erratic behavior before killing themselves?
It is. Linked to repetitive head trauma and currently diagnosable only through autopsy, CTE also has been found in the brains of a number of former football players, including Mike Webster and suicide victims Andre Waters and Owen Thomas. Symptoms of the disease -- which figures prominently in both the "League of Denial" book and movie --include memory loss, aggression, dementia and impaired judgment.
So was Belcher diagnosed with CTE?
No. Belcher's brain surprisingly wasn't examined for signs of the disease immediately following his death. However, his family reportedly allowed medical professionals to exhume his body last month to look for forensic evidence.
Do lawyers for Belcher's mother need to prove that he had CTE to have a chance at winning the lawsuit?
No. While CTE is the best-known neurological condition linked to football-induced head trauma, both concussions and repetitive subconcussive blows to the head can produce an entire spectrum of brain damage, which in turn can spur a wide variety of psychiatric symptoms -- everything from memory loss to disordered thinking to explosive anger.
So what do they need to prove?
Three things: a) Belcher was injured on the job; b) his injuries were a causal factor in his homicidal conduct; c) the Chiefs were negligent in both warning Belcher about workplace risk and properly caring for his injuries.
Sounds like a tough case.
Any supporting evidence?
According to the lawsuit, Belcher was knocked unconscious during a game against Jacksonville in 2009 but did not receive adequate treatment before returning to team activities. The suit also contends that Chiefs coaches and management "engaged in a systemic campaign of mental abuse" that led Belcher to hide and play through additional concussions and brain injuries:
… General Manager Scott Pioli and other agents of Defendant Kansas City Chiefs often berated Decedent, telling him on numerous occasions, that, "he was just an accident, and they would get rid of him." The Defendants constant bullying pressure and stress coupled with Decedents occupational neurological impairments caused or contributed to cause Decedent to become insane …
Not good. But also pretty vague. According to the Chiefs, Belcher only suffered one diagnosed concussion. What else do we know?
A recent story by writer Jeff Pearlman paints a similar picture as the lawsuit, albeit in greater detail. We meet Belcher at the University of Maine, where he was a member of a campus group called Male Athletes Against Violence and a friend describes him as a light drinker who curtailed his social activity to focus on football.
… "When I heard what Jovan did, I thought, 'That can't be right,'" says Sandy Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at Maine, and the anti-violence group's founder. "They said 'Jovan Belcher' on the news and my response was, 'They said 'Jermaine, right? Please tell me they said 'Jermaine.'"
The same Jovan Belcher who used a .40-caliber handgun to shoot Perkins nine times eagerly volunteered to partake in the Chiefs' myriad charitable endeavors.
"We used to do these school visits, and Jovan would just light up around kids," says Josh Looney, who spent seven years in the team's media marketing department. "Some guys have no interest in that stuff. Not Jovan. If we needed players to hand out turkeys or talk to students, he was there" …
Over the course of his NFL career, however, Belcher's behavior and personality changed. He began drinking and partying with "increased regularity," according to the article. He was in constant physical pain. An average athlete by NFL standards, he nonetheless earned a starting spot at middle linebacker -- Pearlman describes his play as hard-hitting but "maddeningly inconsistent," rife with "mental mistakes that elite players don't make."
After suffering a head injury against Jacksonville, Belcher played the next week. Over the next two seasons, he was head injury-free -- at least according to public injury reports:
… over the course of his first two seasons in the league, there's no record of Belcher ever suggesting to the Chiefs that he suffered from concussions. His friends say he also rarely complained about his wrists or ankles or knees.
However, that doesn't mean the problems weren't real. All one had to do was look at his red helmet -- scuffed in dozens of places, each white scratch an ode to an unforgiving game.
"Jovan suffered multiple concussions," says Kash Kiefer, a former punter at Maine and one of Belcher's closest friends. "But in football, you don't complain. You play. That was Jovan. He played" …
Following a Kansas City loss to Cincinnati on Nov. 18, 2012 -- just days before Belcher's murder-suicide -- Pearlman describes the linebacker as being "sorta off":
… according to friends and former teammates, there were headaches. There was forgetfulness. There were rushes of emotion -- anger, more anger, even more anger.
Following the well-worn blueprint of Football Toughness: 101, Belcher arrived at practices over the ensuing week and, according to former teammates, uttered nary a word about the headaches and the memory loss and the bleakness.
"He was pretty convinced he'd suffered multiple concussions that last year," Kiefer says. "He was not himself. I remember a bunch of times he would lose his train of thought while talking to me. He'd be talking about something, and he would just blank. I'd say, 'Man, are you OK?' and he'd come back -- 'Yeah, yeah, I'm fine.' But he was skipping over thoughts, unable to gather it all together. That was new" …
Why was Belcher following the Football Toughness: 101 blueprint? Perhaps to keep his job. Again, Pearlman explains:
… it hardly helped that, according to a former member of the Chiefs, Belcher was the regular target of derision from a high-ranking member of the coaching staff, who pelted the linebacker with one insult after another after another. There were repeated threats from the Chiefs to find a new starter and send Belcher on his way.
"He called me in tears one day, they were riding him so hard," says the former teammate. "Jovan was a hard worker and a leader. But the NFL can be really stupid. Once you're a guy from Maine, you're always a guy from Maine. You never fully prove yourself. That ate him up like nobody's business" …
Why was the Belcher lawsuit filed specifically against the Chiefs, and how does it relate to the consolidated concussion lawsuits filed by more than 4,500 former players against the NFL?
Last August, the league and the 4,500-plus concussion plaintiffs announced a potential $765 million class action settlement that would -- among other things -- bind all living players who decline to opt out and make future suits against the league far more difficult to pursue. By targeting the Chiefs directly, the Belcher suit has a better chance of moving forward in state court, regardless of how the proposed NFL settlement plays out at the federal level.
Like the consolidated suits against the league, the Belcher suit is rooted in the contention that the NFL denied, covered-up and misled players about the neurological risks of head trauma and concussions -- and that the pattern of studied ignorance and willful deception put athletes in harm's way through misapprehension of danger and shoddy medical care. To wit: The NFL appoints a resume-fluffing, company man rheumatologist to head the league's concussion research committee; said committee produces bogus, Big Tobacco-esque junk science to claim things like "concussions in professional football are not serious injuries" and injured players may safely return to competition on the same day as their injuries; league doctors and players follow along with said junk science; injured players who ought to be resting and healing their battered brains instead absorb more hits and punishment.
According to the lawsuit:
Through various acts, errors, omissions and and/or misrepresentations, Defendant sought to conceal, misrepresent, minimize and/or create doubt about the validity of subconcussions, concussions, neurological impairment and CTE. From at least 1994, and likely well before, the Defendant and its agents voluntarily assumed a duty to research the risks of concussions and subconcussions through the creation of two separate Brain-Injury Committees (i.e., Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (1994-2010) and the Head, Neck and Spine Committee (2010 - Present)). Instead of carrying out this assumed duty in a reasonable way, Defendant and its agents created, ratified, authorized and/or condoned the publication of invalid scientific studies and sought to suppress, willfully ignore and/or minimize scientifically valid studies. These "studies" formed the basis for the Defendant's flawed policies, or lack thereof, as they related to the monitoring of concussions, subconcussions and other neurological diseases, such as CTE.
The upshot? The NFL ought to be very, very nervous. If the Belcher suit makes it to the discovery stage, a wide-ranging series of subpoenas and depositions related to the above will follow -- Chiefs officials, league officials, just about everyone in "League of Denial," the NFL Players' Association. Oh, and probably former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who played under Pioli with New England and knows a few things about concussion mismanagement.
Speaking of the settlement, what's the latest?
Federal judge Anita Brody has yet to approve the agreement, which seems shakier by the day -- likely to result in a number of players opting out, and unlikely to close the door on brain damage litigation against the NFL.
As I've argued before, the proposed settlement is a bad deal for the players. It isn't large enough to cover the medical costs of severely injured players in perpetuity. It leaves the vast majority of brain-damaged former players -- the ones with manageable-but-still-miserable nerve damage and cognitive/psychiatric problems -- without treatment or assistance. It doesn't force the NFL to disclose what it knew and when it knew it -- a matter of public health concern, given that the same league is now funding brain damage research through the National Institutes of Health while pushing programs that purport to make youth football less dangerous.
One last thought: I recently spoke to a couple of smart lawyers who were adamant that the NFL already has botched the settlement -- making an offer too low to satisfy the current plaintiffs, but high enough to attract new lawsuits brought by elite, "assassin-class" litigators who "smell blood in the water." Are they right? We'll see soon enough.