In Part 2 of this interview, former 49’ers defensive tackle, George Visger, says he lost everything due to NFL-induced head trauma and offers common sense rule changes to protect NFL players going forward.
This article is the conclusion of a two-part series focusing on former NFL player George Visger, who was a member of the San Francisco 49’ers—number 74 in the team photo above—that went to Super Bowl XVI and won it in 1981 under Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh.
In the following interview excerpt, Visger tells how he lost everything after leaving the NFL due to his head trauma; shares his disdain for the brain-injury settlement recently reached with the NFL and gives common sense rule changes to protect current and future NFL players.
Q: Based on your experience who is to blame for this? No one forced you to play football, correct?
VISGER: Honestly, it’s all about the money. You have greed driving the owners. The owners are pushing the coaches to win or the coach is out of a job. If the doctors want to keep a guy out of a game, there’s pressure on the docs to keep players on the field.
That mentality washes down to the players who have to be dragged off the field or who say they can still play even when they’re hurt—it’s the way we’re wired.
I know that everyone has a choice, but it starts with the owners and their greed.
Q: How did your injuries all those years ago impact you after you left the NFL?
VISGER: I lost everything due to my poor memory. I lost my business in 2011. I lost my home, I’ve been homeless since 2012. My wife and I are going through a divorce right now, after 19 years of marriage with three kids.
I’m not a ignorant guy and I’m hard working. The problem is that I have severe memory problems—like I just can’t remember where I parked my truck this morning or what bills need to be paid.
As we’re talking right now, I’ve got a page-and-a-half of notes. I’m writing stuff down because I won’t remember what we talked about later this afternoon if I don’t.
Q: Can you give us the latest on the concussion settlement with the NFL, and your generally feeling regarding that deal?
VISGER: We supposedly won a $765 million dollar settlement with the NFL back in September right? But there are all these caveats…it’ll be payable over 65 years, you have to be diagnosed with one-of-six neurological aliments…ultimately, the presiding judge in the case yanked the cap on it, which was great.
But I think people will get the best insight if they read the article written by award-winning writer, Patrick Hruby. He went through all the legal documents page by page and has the best understanding of the settlement of any reporter thus far.
Here’s what the terms net out to.
To get a full payment, players had to have been active for five years in the NFL even though the average NFL career only lasts an average of 3.2 years in actuality.
I played two years in the NFL, and was on injured reserve for most of my second year due to recovery from my brain surgery—so that entire second season doesn’t count for me because I was inactive while on IR. Explain that to me?
This is a brain injury lawsuit and my second year in the NFL I was recovering from brain surgery—but that doesn’t count.
So basically, I’m credited with one season out of the five seasons required for a total payment—which means I’m eligible for 20 percent if I get anything.
So for example, if you have the lowest level (mild cognitive impairment) and were diagnosed before you turned 45 years of age—you’d be eligible for a settlement of $1.5 million.
Now in my instance, because they only recognize one year of my playing career, I would be eligible for a maximum payment of $300,000 but that’s IF I had been diagnosed prior to age 45—which didn’t happen in my case.
Under the settlement, the older you are when diagnosed with a neurological brain issue—the smaller the maximum settlement amount you’re eligible for.
So, if you’re diagnosed between the ages of 45-49, the maximum settlement for five-year players drops to $950,000. If you’re diagnosed between the ages of 50-54, it drops to $600,000 for five-year players.
The rationale—I guess—was that the later in life you’re diagnosed with one of these neurological disorders, the less of an economic impact you experienced during those prime earning years.
The top-settlements are $4 million for players diagnosed with CTE—which you have to be dead to receive that diagnosis—by at age 45 and a $5 million settlement for players diagnosed with Lou Gehrigs disease—again who must have been diagnosed prior to age 45.
There are so many caveats on this, the bottom line is that of the approximate 21,000 total number of players covered by the settlement, less than 3,600 of us are likely to be sick enough from one of the named neuo-degenerative ailments in the lawsuit to receive any cash benefits.
Additionally, based on the NFL’s own actuary projections for this lawsuit—the average age of a recipient of a cash award will be 77 years old at the time that the settlements diagnostic tests qualify them for payments.
Under the terms of the lawsuit, if a player is diagnosed with one of the named diseases at age 77—the top settlement for a player who was in the league for five years would only get $150,000 as a maximum amount. Very few of the guys—if any of them—will even be alive if they do qualify for a maximum settlement.
It needs to be clear that this was not a case of billionaire owners fighting millionaire players. As I’ve said, most of us older players signed with teams for such small amounts that we had to work other jobs off-season and many of us do not have any healthcare benefits. We’ve got nothing.
This settlement is a joke. It’s a mind-boggling joke.
Q: Aside from the issues you’ve discussed regarding actual settlement amounts, what are your thoughts on the provision that the NFL did not have to admit any wrongdoing as part of the agreement?
VISGER: The thing that bothers me the most about the settlement was that the NFL did not have to admit wrongdoing as part of this agreement nor did they have to disclose any of their brain injury studies regarding what they knew and when they knew it.
The NFL is a league of denial. What they gave us was hush money—here’s $765 million now get the hell out of the way because we’ve got $9.5 billion to make this upcoming season.
It’s a paper version of smoke and mirrors, that enables them to keep kicking the can down the road to get another season in and let more retirees die—which shrinks the payout pool of players in the lawsuit.
Q:What needs to be done to protect the players?
VISGER: I loved the game—always have ever since I was a little kid. I don’t believe that they’ll ever be able to make the game completely safe. I just don’t.
Over the years, I’ve shared several of my ideas with league officials and medical experts—some of them have been actually implemented.
Some of my ideas are common sense. I mean look how big some of these players are? Why can’t we put weight limits in place for key positions? I mean we have 340 lbs. athletes that can run a 4.6 second 40 yard dash. People get hurt with those types of physics.
How about starting all linemen in two-point stances? That’s a simple one that would force players not to lead with their head and reduce the cumulative effects of sub-concussive hits.
Another might be having all players line up within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
That would reduce the velocity that defensive backs—who are 15 yards deep—build up as they run and fly to the ball like a guided missile; as well as linebackers who are eight yards off the ball waiting to blow up some guy. That’s one way to reduce the kinetic energy.
Another idea would be to require extra padding beneath the actual playing fields that have artificial surfaces. The extra cushion would help reduce impact injuries with the ground and equally reduce the running speed of players on both teams. The game is so fast now, that such tweaks would be imperceptible to the average fan.
Also, how about severe-cash penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits—but don’t fine the players, fine the owners. If the NFL really wants to change the culture of this game, hit the owners in the pocketbook.
You don’t think that would trickle down to players? I mean if one player received three $500,000 fines in a single game because he was leading with his head—don’t you think things would change? Why fine the players?
Those players are only doing what they’ve been taught since Pop Warner. I said it before—it all starts with the greed of the owners. A lot of the risk to players would end if the owners’ profits were at risk.
It’s worth considering for the long-term safety of the players.
If the NFL and the owners are serious about protecting players, that’s where they need to start.
—Photo: Courtesy of George Visger
For more Good Men Project Sports coverage of the recent concussion-related issues coming out of the NFL and youth sports, check out:
- The Man Whose ‘Crusade Could Change Football Forever’ Speaks With Us About Concussions and the NFL (November 17, 2014)
- Ex-NFL Player Talks Brain Trauma, Greed and Blame: Part 1 (November 17, 2014)
- Is the NFL’s Culture of Violence Causing a Crisis of American Masculinity? (November 10, 2014)
- Athletes’ ‘Killer Instinct’ – In Words. In Pictures. And In Your Face (November 5, 2014)
- High School Football Deaths Stir Memories of Ugly Youth Football Moments (October 10, 2014)
- The End of Football for Men and Boys? Readers and Experts Discuss Where We Go From Here (Oct. 5, 2014)
- The NFL’s Concussion Problem Just Got A Lot Worse (Sept. 30, 2014)
- Roger S. Goodell, Will You Please Go Now? (Sept. 22, 2014)
- We May Be Right. We May Be Crazy: Musings on the NFL’s Violence Problem (Sept. 16, 2014)
- The National Football League: Too Big To Fail? (Sept. 13, 2014)