Mike Kasdan speaks with Jason Luckasevic, the lawyer who filed the concussions lawsuit against the NFL that is changing the way we think about the game.
Last week’s 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 brought the first ever concussions lawsuit against the NFL 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. In so doing, Luckasevic has shined a light on the NFL’s dirty little secret. Now the cracks are beginning to show, and there is no putting the genie back in the proverbial bottle.
As the New York Times article explained:
In 2011, Luckasevic filed suit against the N.F.L., at first on behalf of 75 players. Among them were Mark Duper, a three-time Pro Bowl selection at wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins, and Fred McNeil, a linebacker who played a dozen seasons for the Minnesota Vikings. (McNeil became a lawyer after he retired from football, but dementia has forced him to leave the profession; an article published on the Vikings’ website said that he cannot remember the scores of the Super Bowls he competed in.)
Luckasevic’s civil action, later joined by dozens of lawyers around the nation who brought thousands of their own clients, is now moving toward final settlement, perhaps as soon as later this month. In September, the N.F.L. filed documents in federal court, prepared by actuaries, estimating that 28 percent of the retired players eligible for payments under the settlement will develop long-term cognitive deficiencies, many of them at “notably younger ages” than the general population. In other words, they will suffer from early-onset dementia. With that, the connection between football and brain damage was validated. There was no more denying it.
Luckasevic’s story is an incredible one. Based on his years of digging, talking to players, studying medical reports, and advocacy Jason Luckasevic probably is one of the best positioned people in the world to share frank insights about football and concussions.
He recently took the time to speak with The Good Men Project.
Born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, Luckasevic is earnest and friendly. He is a father to two girls, ages 6 and 7, who “play everything I wish I would have done – dance, ballet, tennis, musical theater, piano.” He was a self-described football fanatic, who now no longer even watches the game.
The following Q&A is a transcription of the interview that Luckasevic had with GMP Sr. Sports Editor, Mike Kasdan.
Q: Do you believe that the NFL knew about the long-term damage of concussions and sustained head trauma? If so, since when?
Yes. I believe, essentially, since the League was formed.
In the initial suit, we cited scientific and medical studies showing that football was dangerous. This included medical studies from the 1940s and 1950s, such as journals recommending retirement after three concussions from playing football. The rules changes that the NFL implemented over time also demonstrates that they were aware of the problem. For example, they changed the rules in 1970s to prevent defensive players from using the head slap move (the so-called ‘Deacon Jones Rule’) in order to reduce hits to the head, because it was causing injury. The NFL has been aware of this forever.
Q: You started your legal career doing asbestos litigation and later uncovered the concussions issues. As you started to uncover the issue with concussions, when was it that you started to get that Erin Brockavich feeling?
It’s funny that you put it like that, because my co-counsel in the concussions case is Tom Girardi, who was the same lawyer from Erin Brockovich.
For me it started to come together as I sat down and started talking to more experts in medicine and science and then met with the players and heard their personal stories about their lives. And it struck me, like, wow – this is a really big deal. They are really hiding something here. Holy shit.
And I remember thinking, ‘Should I not be touching this?’ Because this is life changing big time stuff. John Grisham novel stuff.
Q: In the New York Times article, you mention that when Dr. Bennet Omalu published his initial findings about concussions in Neuroscience in 2005, after he did the autopsy of Mike Webster, the NFL attacked it. Is there any color you can provide on how that went down?
I appreciate now what he went through. It was an emotional rollercoaster. He was being attacked in the press about what he said and why he was saying it. But he always says, “God fights my battles. I’m not worried what they say. The truth will prevail.” I am so glad that I stood by him, and that he stood by me.
Frankly, we were the worst nightmare for the NFL.
He was a young Nigerian doctor that had no idea what he was getting into. He had brains. He worked hard.
I was on the same track, some young lawyer trying to figure out what negligence was. I understood football. And then I run into this case of outright fraud, and I thought “Holy heck. We have something here. And they’re lying about it.”
Q: How difficult was it to lead the way on this?
I sincerely believe that if I didn’t push to bring this case, it would not have happened. I challenge anyone to show that they would have. Yes, they thought about it. Sure, they read about it in the Wall Street Journal. You see Malcolm Gladwell talking about it. But I don’t know that established lawyers would have done this. They were too afraid it would become a money pit and damage their careers.
To my own partners, I said ‘I’m not giving up on it.’ And I refused to.
And then to the outside world, I would say (more confidently than I actually was): ‘My firm is behind me.’
Q: Do you believe there are ties between head injuries and off-the-field violence, like domestic violence and child abuse?
Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. We’re talking not only about a cognitive brain injury but behavioral brain injury.
I think this case changed the legal world. It will make the the issue of concussion an issue in virtually every case. It’s a landmark shift.
I get calls every day now about concussions. The medical community is looking at this, and I think that science will change. The future of criminal cases will also change. You will hear defenses of CTE and that’s the reason he killed and should be put in to psychiatric care rather than prison. I fear it because it could be abused and misused, but I do think that one of the big changes we will see is to the future of criminal cases.
There is a study going on in prison systems to determine number of CTE injuries suffered by occupants. I’ve heard that a preliminary report shows 70% have a history of traumatic brain injury. When these studies are published, it will knock people’s socks off.
Q: How did you win players trust as you pursued this issue to trial?
The players have a quote, “You can’t bullshit the bullshitter.” I’m as candid as can be. You don’t get anywhere by lying to clients or feeding them bullshit. Answer their calls. Be there. They have to know you. It’s all the hard work stuff we know as lawyers. There are no shortcuts.
Q: So in 2011 you filed suit. What were you thinking? Were you scared? Were you pressured not to do it by your Partners or friends?
I was scared to death.
I was afraid to tell anybody.
You have to understand when we first filed this the media were ready to hang us:
- “It’s a money grab;”
- “Those greedy lawyers;”
- “This is bullshit;”
- “There are no head problems;”
- “How dare you!;”
- “This is another McDonalds hot coffee spill case.”
You name it, we were called it.
I would just sit in hiding.
But in some respects, it gave me every opportunity I took to educate people. These two radio hosts from ESPN were ready to nail me right after we filed, and I gave them all the answers to their questions about assumption of risk, and explained how they didn’t know better.
They said: “Why not sue Hockey?! What about Boxing?!”
And so I told them what NHL did – in 1994 when Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine had severe concussions, the NHL created a return to play protocol that required independent physicians to evaluate and clear the players. They did what they were supposed to do. The NFL did the exact opposite. Not only that but they lied about it. They said that wasn’t even an injury. That was the end of that interview.
I do love educating people about that issue.
Q: Many have said that injuries pre-NFL are the big culprit, at the youth levels and college. What’s your view?
I think any repeated traumatic brain injury (TBI), where you have repeated hits to the head, is not good for you.
They do this 9-11 months out of year in full pads practicing every day, two a days, camps, mini-camps, beating themselves up every day. Bigger, stronger, harder, longer.
One year of Pro Football is probably the equivalent to 12 years in the little leagues.
Q: What was your thought when NFL’s own actuaries came out with the 28% number? Was that a tipping point?
My thought was that 28% is way to small a number, but it’s still way above the normal incidence. I think the number is more like 50%.
But wow – is it scary.
It’s look to your left, look to your right, one of you will have a brain injury.
Q: The proposed $765 million settlement. What are your thoughts and impressions?
The first time I saw the number, I thought that must be just the number for the first payment!
Q: Is the settlement a victory for the League, as many are saying? How would you have done things differently if you were in charge of the decision to settle?
Where I came from, it’s a victory for me and the injured guys and for anyone who plays sports that may involve head injuries. Saving lives on a daily basis is a victory for players.
Is it right thing? The amount or settlement or settling at that time? No. I would have waited for Court to rule on the motion to dismiss and then I would have decided a strategy going forward. To settle at this point, before a ruling on that, it’s like bidding on a house and not knowing its fair market value.
Q: Was there any attempt to establish healthcare endowment or fund for retired players as part of settlement?
That would have been great.
Q: Was there any attempt to negotiate tougher safety rules?
That would have been great too. But I don’t think the NFL really cares. Do you?
Q: How do you respond to those who say – that players – at least now, who choose to play, are doing so fully aware of the risk and accepting that risk.
Yes. This is true, but you need to make sure that the right rules are in place and that you identify and treat injury.
Q: What will the future hold for the NFL? Will the game change? Are we reaching “The End of Football?”
I don’t really care. That is up to the fans.
But I think the NFL is going to be fine and that the League will be around forever.
Why? Because of fantasy football and gambling. That’s why.
At the youth levels, I believe that football will become a low-middle-class and lower sport.
Q: Are you surprised the NFL is more popular then ever?
As I said: Gambling and fantasy football.
Q: Sundays for you growing up were church and Steelers Football. Now you no longer watch. Does that make you sad? How does it make you feel about all of this?
No – it gives me more time on my hands. And I’m glad that I’ve gotten to meet these guys. They have changed my life. They are wonderful wonderful men. And their wives. They are the champions – the wives. I am honored to call them my true friends.
Vernon Maxwell, Leonard Marshall, Mark Duper, Joe DeLamielleure, Tony Dorsett, The Webster family, The Long family, The Wright Brothers. Chidi Ohanatu. Rodney Hampton. Louis Lipps.
So many more.
Good good good good people.
They don’t get enough credit for being good people.
They sacrifice their bodies and minds for the game, and now most of them don’t even have health insurance.
So no, it doesn’t make me sad.
I’m just a naïve guy who stumbled in to this. And I like to help people.
Photo Credit: Cover (Luckasevic); Patriots/Ravens Tackle (Associated Press/Winslow Townson); Jason Luckasevic with Maurice Spencer (Luckasevic); Jason and Kelly Luckasevic with Leonard Marshall (Luckasevic);
Thank you to Jason Luckasevic for being so generous with his time and for his willingness to speak with us. Thank you also to Kimberly Archie for kindly introducing us to Mr. Luckasevic.
For more Good Men Project Sports coverage of the recent concussion-related issues coming out of the NFL and youth sports, check out:
- Ex-NFL Player Talks Brain Trauma, Greed and Blame: Part II (November 18, 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)