For fans that enjoyed last week’s Super Bowl, it may be time to soak it up. Given the legal and public relations fallout from the National Football League’s handling of head injuries, the tradition may not be around forever.
Over 4,000 former players have now filed lawsuits alleging that the league hid the risks of serious injuries from concussions and failed to do enough to prevent them. The high-profile concussion lawsuits have not only damaged the league’s reputation, but also threaten its bottom line. If the NFL loses these lawsuits, its could cost the league up to $10 billion. While the financial hit certainly won’t bankrupt the league, which raked in an estimated $9 billion in 2012 alone, it will still have an impact on football leagues everywhere.
With regard to college football players, the NCAA does not have a formal concussion policy. While this may seem bizarre given what we now know about the risk of brain injuries, the reason is not that the association does not care about the health and safety of its athletes. Rather, leaving its member schools to devise and enforce their own individual concussion policies helps shield the NCAA from legal liability. While suits have been filed against the NCAA, it is in a much better position to defend them because it has not undertaken to protect players but rather delegated the duty to its colleges and universities.
While big schools will likely be able to afford the inevitable jump in insurance premiums that will follow any legal decision against the NFL, the same can’t be said for smaller programs. In fact, high school and pop warner teams may see the biggest fallout from the mounting evidence about the long-term effects of concussions.
Because it is more difficult to deny that leagues and coaches were unaware of the risks of head injuries, insurance companies are already increasing premiums and even seeking to exclude concussion liability. Smaller leagues that could be put out of business by just one lawsuit are often faced with difficult choices about how to defray the costs as well as the risks. Higher participation fees, broader liability waivers, and stricter concussion protocols are now on the table.
Of course, parents are also starting to rethink whether they should enroll their children in concussion prone sports like football. Just recently, President Obama acknowledged that he wasn’t sure if he would allow a son to partake in America’s favorite pastime.