The late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster is at the center of a new discovery sure to ignite the latest round of debate over the impact of brain injuries among NFL players. A joint investigation by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and PBS' "FRONTLINE" revealed that Webster is one of three players who received roughly $2 million in disability benefits for brain injuries incurred from their football careers. Those payments came at the same time the league denied the link between long-term brain injuries and head trauma suffered as a result of playing football.
The finding comes only months after thousands of former NFL players joined a class action lawsuit against the NFL for damages resulting from concussions and head injuries. The suit claims negligence on the part of the NFL in denying the link between head trauma and long-term player health.
In August, the NFL filed to dismiss the class action lawsuit. The league claims that it never concealed information regarding the risks associated with head injuries. It also points to an evolving understanding of the issue, in part reflected in changes to policies and rules over the years.
The attorney that represented Webster through his disability case, Bob Fitzsimmons, called his client's settlement a "smoking gun" in the class action lawsuit.
"It's pretty devastating evidence. If the NFL takes the position that they didn't know or weren't armed with evidence that concussions can cause total disability - permanent disability, permanent brain injury - in 1999, that evidence trumps anything they say."
Webster suffered from severe mental health issues that left him in constant pain. He filed for disability in 1999, and the board granted him partial disability after ruling that his health problems were the result of injuries suffered from his playing career. His family sued for full disability in 2004, and court documents revealed additional players who received benefits from the retirement board for the same reason.
Webster died in 2002 at the age of 50.
The retirement board is independent of the NFL and NFLPA. Its seven members, however, are made up of three owner representatives, three player representatives and a non-voting representative of the NFL commissioner. The league pointed to the board's independent status when asked about the connection between the disability findings and the league's position on the link between head injuries and long-term player health.
The ESPN/PBS report comes only months after a study released by the CDC revealed that football players suffered a higher death rate from neurological diseases.
Together, those findings strengthen the case of the nearly 4,000 players, including names like Eric Dickerson and Tony Dorsett, seeking damages in the class action lawsuit over head injuries. That case is currently sitting in the U.S. District Court in Eastern Pennsylvania. That case could result in a lengthy legal battle, and potentially a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could cost the NFL billions of dollars.