In 2014, a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, “How One Lawyer’s Crusade Could Change Football Forever,” told the story of Jason Luckasevic, the lawyer who in 2011 had brought the first ever concussions lawsuit against the National Football League on behalf of 75 retired players, charging the NFL with fraud based on hiding information about the link between football, head injuries and brain damage. At the time, Luckasevic’s civil action, which had been joined by dozens of lawyers around the nation who brought thousands of their own clients, was moving toward a final settlement with the NFL.
The following week, we spoke to Luckasevic for Good Men Project Sports, and published the interview in an article entitled The Man Whose ‘Crusade Could Change Football Forever’ Speaks With Us About Concussions and the NFL.
It was an eye-opening conversation, and set off years of follow-on reporting at Good Men Project Sports on the issue of concussions, CTE, traumatic brain injuries and youth, college, and pro football. (A sampling of that reporting is listed at the bottom of this article.)
But as we sit here six years later, the NFL is more popular than ever. The $1B settlement – controversial and criticized as it became clear that it would not reach many who needed help – did not have the impact on the game – or on our culture – that many thought it would at the beginning.
I had the opportunity to visit with Jason Luckasevic to check-in on his perspective from the front-lines looking back on all this.
He is still a lawyer, but has since moved his family out of the football-centered city of Pittsburgh:
I thought it was best to move somewhere where they could get away from football. I have girls. So, the worst thing would be to have a bunch of boys give my girls a hard time about football and how their dad hates football, which just shows people’s ignorance, every time I hear that.
Luckasevic – a natural and passionate storyteller – has also just released a book, The Head Case, which details the trials and tribulations of his long journey seeking justice for former NFL football players suffering from chronic brain damage. One of his motivations in writing the book was to inspire individuals to never give up on seeking justice and doing what is right for people.
The Head Case explores Luckasevic’s roots and describes his close personal and professional relationship with world-renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu. It was this relationship with Dr. Omalu, along with the NFL’s efforts to undermine his research and findings of CTE in the brains of Mike Webster, Terry Long, and Justin Strzelczyk, that inspired Luckasevic as a young attorney to risk his personal and professional life to seek justice for former players and, in turn, vindicate Dr. Omalu, by challenging the richest and most powerful sports league in America.
The lawsuit against the NFL was an important part of bringing the conversation about head injuries and football to light and into a national conversation. But there is still much work to be done.
Mike Kasdan, GMP Sports:
Why this book and why now?
The answer to that really is simple. The [class action lawsuit] case [against the NFL] has reached the point of being done. The story needs to be told. And there is no better time than right now to inspire people.
This world has been turned upside down on its head. It needs a good story as to why you should fight for what’s right and do what’s right, in spite of the fact that it may be hard. And that’s why I did what I did.
Looking back now at the whole journey with football and CTE and the lawsuit…what is your takeaway. Where do you think things are and where are they headed?
Well, my takeaway is I wish I would have never gotten involved in this mess. And if I did get involved, there are a million things I would have done differently along the way.
That being said, I think the book does a really good job in telling the story of the settlement and how it was done early and quickly and was the NFL’s settlement – not the Players’ settlement – and the settlement is to basically pay people for diseases that are not CTE (i.e. to pay people for diseases of the aging and elderly public, which unfortunately is not the disease of CTE, which is a disease of cognitive changes and behavior disorders). So you’re not seeing a true incidence of what CTE is. All you’re doing is paying them for dementia and Alzheimers, and you’re challenging them every step of the way. On top of that you also have the problem that anyone that dies from CTE after 2015 isn’t even getting compensated. So there is no reason or desire for the NFL to keep data or get autopsies or even for people to get autopsies, because you’re not getting compensated for it.
In a sense, this whole world of CTE is being thrown under a rug, and these poor families that are getting their children involved in football will never understand that it’s bad, that it’s real, and that it exists.
As a parent, I’ve dealt locally dealt with with high school football – not disclosing or disclosing misleading information about head injuries – and dealt with the pushback. But what are your thoughts on whether, now because of more information out there about CTE, the 2015 hit movie Concussion, the book it was based on and others like League of Denial and No Game For Boys To Play current players know the risk and they’re playing and that’s that? And maybe its different for youth athletes, but the pros, they accept the risk.
Is that a legitimate position? Are we in a better place in terms of information out there?
Well, what is the NFL’s position on CTE?
Have they ever said what it is? Have they ever said that you are at increased risk for CTE because you play football? I mean what is their position? That’s what I have a problem with.
Look, let’s face it. We know as a fact that hundreds of brains have been tested, and, if you reach the NFL level, something like 99% of them have shown CTE. You can ask these former players any question, but they will all tell you that these head problems – CTE – this is real. And I have talked to literally thousands of players and former players.
The issue becomes – what is the NFL’s position and are they doing enough? I’ve never seen their position, and I don’t know what they agree on, but can’t we all agree that if you play there is an increased risk of harm? That is what our legal claim was, after all.
That being said, how many brains do we need to have problems with before you have to say something, before you have to report it? That’s what it comes down to. We know there are many things that cause increased risks of harm – cholesterol, radiation, cigarettes, bad sugars. Repeated hits are just another risk. Is there a safe blow to the head?!
These are all issues that – unfortunately – due to this settlement, are forgotten about. The subject needs to be continued to be talked about. It’s an important one. And I am one of those people who is looking to keep that conversation going.
We have talked a lot about this issue at The Good Men Project, and we’ve see the push back from many, including youth coaches, who argue that football is discipline and football is good and we don’t really know.
I’ve also followed political efforts to make changes, like the efforts to pass laws on banning tackle football for under 14 years old or other lawsuits that have been brought against youth leagues or helmet manufacturers, but it seems we haven’t yet made a lot of progress there.
No. Not at all. At least that’s my experience. I don’t know how these leagues are doing or growing but I haven’t seen the craze in our nation over football go down.
To me, it all comes down to a few basic things: there are peer reviewed studies on the number of hits people face when playing games and practice. It all comes down to the more games, the more practices, the more equipment wearing, bigger/stronger/faster, all those issues all increase the incidence of these head injury problems.
That being said, with respect to being able to successfully bring lawsuits, it depends on your case. If you’re going to take a case to trial, you’ve got to be serious about it and be careful over how you select the the plaintiff. You need to meet legal burden and scientific/medical burdens – look at how long they played, how severe the diagnosis, the documentation of hits and medical testing. These are causation issues. That’s a real issue in these cases.
In our earlier interview in 2014, you made a bold statement about the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries by offenders in domestic violence and child abuse cases and in prison populations and predicted that there are more brain injuries than we realize, that the issue would be raised in an increasing number of cases, and that it would shock people. Since that time, we’ve seen cases like former Patriot, Aaron Hernandez, whose brain was found to be severely damaged.
Do you have thoughts on the impact of head injuries on off-the-field behavior in football and on crime in general?
It has grown ever since this case.
Head injuries are now a talked about issue in world of injuries and in legal world. We see it in criminal defenses. We see it in auto accidents. Slip and falls, in terms of injury. Concussions are now being treated seriously and as a major problem. It has gotten pretty good attention. The information is out there.
And that increase in information about head injuries ties back into the is the issue of assuming the risk, because the more its out there, the more that question is raised. Are you assuming the risk?
But let’s face it. These leagues aren’t anywhere near where they need to be in terms of talking about it and informing people of it. Just think — If they treated head injuries like they treat COVID, how many players would play?
One issue we talk about at The Good Men Project is the so-called “disposability of men” – notions of masculinity and toughness that we see in war, dangerous jobs, and football.
Despite all we know about risks, men are still banging heads on the football field. Any thoughts on how to make progress when something is so culturally bound?
Well, look. I’m not anti-football. I’m pro athlete.
All I ever did was alert and try to help players because the NFL failed at its obligations and misled people. If I didn’t fight for them, these players would just be another casualty of our government systems, Medicare, Medicaid, social security, disability and healthcare. That said, I think the most important thing you can do is warn of things that are known to be a problem.
Let’s remember that Dr. Omalu looked at brains under a microscope and said “I see a problem. I’m reporting that there is a problem.” And he’s reporting on a matter of public health.
So, should we advise the public of a risk – of a problem – of repeatedly banging your head when playing football? Should we advise the public of the risk of a virus that started in another country and came over to our country? Should we advise the public that those little things you buy at your gas station that you light and smoke on can later potentially cause cancer? Those are the questions that we have to ask. And with each one of those things, whether it be coronavirus, or smoking, eating a lot of sugars, or having high cholesterol, not everybody that has those things or gets those things will die or develop a problem.
So, does everyone who plays football need to develop this problem before we alert people of a potential public health risk?
That would be contrary to the way we have handled every other public health risk, no just in America, but in this world.
Predictions looking forward – for football or otherwise?
What is the future of football? I have no idea. It’s really not my problem. I’m not a football guy. I’m an injury guy. I’m there to help people.
So what do I hope?
I hope that this continues to be talked about so future generations don’t have the problems of past generations.
I hope that anybody who plays, that these leagues take care of them if anybody that gets injured, instead of saying ‘It’s not my problem’ ‘Its not my duty’ ‘Its not my responsibility, it’s the government’s problem, or its their own fault because you shouldn’t have played in the first place.
You can’t have it both ways.
Thank you to Jason Luckasevic for being so generous with his time and for his willingness to speak with us.
Photo Credits: Erin Costa/Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License (Cover: NFL); Jason Luckasevic (Head Case Book Cover)