The men stood under bright sun in maroon blazers, an awkward collision between the NFL's freewheeling past and litigious present.
Retired Washington Redskins crowded the sideline at FedEx Field on Sunday to commemorate the "80 Greatest Redskins." They embraced one another. Posed for cellphone pictures. Flashed Super Bowl rings the size of small jewelry stores. Shuffled around the turf in tasseled loafers and white sneakers. Some used canes. Hearing aids. Dark wraparound sunglasses. A wheelchair.
But the word that unites many of them off the field wasn't mentioned.
The word haunts the NFL. Even after locker room posters warning about the long-term dangers of concussions and demonstrating proper tackling technique. After handing over $30 million for the National Institutes of Health to study head injuries on the same September day the American Academy of Neurology concluded NFL veterans have three times the risk of dying from a neurodegenerative disease as the regular population. After on-field rules changes and concussion protocols and a hyped initiative with the U.S. Army to address traumatic brain injury. After announcing Robert Griffin III was "shaken-up" instead of concussed last month cost the Redskins $20,000.
Then there are the men in maroon blazers.
Twenty of the 59 living ex-players in the "80 Greatest Redskins" are among the almost 4,000 players suing the NFL over concussions sustained during their careers. Twenty.
You didn't find that statistic in the news releases promoting the "homecoming" celebration. The price of pain seems abstract, easily papered over by the NFL's public relations machine until you walk among the maroon blazers: Art Monk, Mark Rypien, Billy Kilmer, Dexter Manley and 16 more of some of the biggest names to play for the Redskins. All suing. Legal arguments are one thing. Broken bodies and men facing the fear of worse days to come are another.
The latest is Pat Fischer, who joined the lawsuits last month and attended Sunday. Seventeen years as a cornerback, including 10 with the Redskins, landed him in the team's Ring of Fame. A 72-page complaint in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania sums up the cost.
Fischer sustained "multiple repetitive traumatic head impacts and concussions, for which he was never treated by a physician while he played in the NFL," the complaint said. As a result, the 72-year-old Fischer suffers from a laundry list of ailments: dementia, cognitive decline, severe memory loss and, the complaint asserts, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That's the devastating, mind-shredding neurodegenerative disease.
The court filing blames concussions and sub-concussive blows and, like the rest of the individual lawsuits, accuses the NFL of concealing the long-term impacts of such injuries. They claim the league put entertainment above safety. Sections in Fischer's lawsuit are entitled: "The NFL has mythologized violence through the media" and "The NFL markets and glorifies football's violence through NFL Films."
Fischer's two All-Pro selections, his 56 interceptions seem to fade under the harsh words.
As concussion lawsuits go, Fischer's is tame. But that's simply evidence of the problem the NFL faces from the litigation, a problem that extends far beyond the litigation's success or failure. The former players are an inconvenient truth, brushed off in the NFL's 35-page motion to dismiss as "a labor dispute" and lacking "a single substantive factual allegation." The players' acid-tongued response accused the NFL of waging a "campaign of disinformation" and mocked the idea that collective bargaining agreements ruled the matter.
Discarding the past is at odds with the NFL's headlong rush to remake an inherently violent game into something safer. So sensitive is the issue that using the wrong word — "shaken-up" versus "concussion" — draws a fine. The league's slick website — NFLEvolution.com — breathlessly chronicles each step taken toward a safer game.
"Forever forward football" is the site's slogan. Looking back, of course, doesn't fit the league's safety-obsessed narrative. Not when almost a quarter of all retired players are suing.
So, the men in the maroon blazers stood on the sideline, stuck between the field and the league. The game can be made safer for the present, but how do you reconcile the past?
The men left FedEx Field after Sunday's game, but they're not going away.
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