SB Nation

Alfie Crow | August 22, 2013

'The NFL doesn't owe me anything'

A former linebacker who was suing pro football explains why he's now satisfied with what the league is doing to prevent concussions and care for its players.

Standing on the sidelines watching players thud full force into each other at Jacksonville Jaguars training camp, former NFL linebacker Jeff Kopp recalls what finally made him realize something had to be done about football's concussion problem.

"Junior Seau," Kopp says. "That was one that really hit home for me. I knew Junior, we both went to Southern Cal. You can't tell me that his depression didn't have something to do with who knows how many concussions he had from playing 20 years at linebacker."

Seau took his own life in May of 2012. Pathologists later determined that Seau had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease often found in athletes who have suffered repeated head trauma. It can lead to memory loss, depression, dementia and other symptoms.

Seau is one of several former NFL players who committed suicide and were later found to have CTE. Until recently, doctors could not diagnose CTE in living patients, but some medical breakthroughs are leading in the right direction to help diagnose the problem before it's too late.

* * *

Kopplede_mediumJeff Kopp (Courtesy of Jacksonville Jaguars)

A year before Seau's death, in 2011, 75 former NFL players filed a lawsuit against the NFL.

"This is where it was really, really difficult," Kopp says when asked why he decided initially to add his name to the lawsuit levied against the league. "I've mentioned it's a catch-22, as a former player, as part of the NFL Players Association, you want to get as many benefits and you want to have the game be as safe as it can possibly be for all the players."

The benefits for former players have been a big sticking point and a battle between the NFLPA and the league.

"Up until a few years ago, I think there was a big void in that area," Kopp says. "I think the benefits for the retired players, what they were doing post career, weren't that good, especially the concussion protocols.

"I just think the point has been made. They're aware of it and they understand how serious it is."

"After discussing that with a lot of guys, it was a very tough decision but we decided to join the lawsuit. Actually from day one I've never been comfortable being in the lawsuit. I do love the game and I do know it was my choice, but to get the attention of the league and to get the attention of everyone involved, you have to be a part of that."

Kopp withdrew from the lawsuit in July 2013, satisfied with the NFL's response.

"I just think the point has been made. They're aware of it and they understand how serious it is," Kopp says, explaining why he decided to withdraw from the lawsuit. "That's what I wanted to get out of it."

* * *

In 2009, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was grilled by Congress about the link between head injuries in the NFL and brain diseases. Goodell refused to acknowledge a definitive link existed, which prompted some in Congress to compare the NFL's stance on concussions to the tobacco industry denying a link between smoking and health issues in the 1990s.

Goodell assured congress that it is a "priority for the owners and players to take better care of our retired players." He noted that the league has "reduced red tape, simplified the process for applicants and their families and sped disability determinations."

Two years later, the lawsuit was filed by former players and, along with heavy pressure from Congress, has forced the NFL's hand. The league began changing how it approaches head injuries and retired player benefits.

Since the filing of the lawsuit, the NFL has taken measures to curb players returning to the game after suffering a concussion as well as starting programs beginning at the youth level to teach players how to properly tackle.

"Things are heading in the right direction."

"Things are heading in the right direction, the NFL is aware of everything and they're being proactive about it. They weren't being before," Kopp says. "That was me withdrawing."

The league has also provided former players free neurocognitive treatment at certain universities and hospitals across the country to help treat and discover problems before it's too late.

"From a benefits standpoint, they've created a bunch of stuff on the players' side for retired players, as far as neurocognitive studies and research, where it costs you nothing to go see these specialists," Kopp says. "They get you healthy, they have life lines, all this stuff was just created recently for former players."

Some might consider this an admission of guilt by the NFL, in making changes to its concussion protocols by adding independent neurologists on the sideline and setting a minimum on the amount of days players have to sit out once suffering a concussion. But legally speaking it does not really affect the case much.

"The law says that's a post-remedial measure," Jacksonville-based lawyer John Phillips explains. "A post-remedial measure says 'I did something after, to make it safer,' and it's actually not admissible in the court case."

However, there are still thousands of players in the lawsuit levied against the NFL, as former players and their families seek money for the negative, life-altering effects of head trauma and concussions.

Kopp didn't seemed to be concerned with the potential of a money windfall from the suit against the league, but more with forcing the league to make changes to how it takes care of players in both the pre-1994 era and the collective bargaining agreement era.

"They think they're going to get a bunch of money, and maybe they will, but I couldn't care less about that stuff and we could all use money, but that's not the point," Kopp says.

"The NFL doesn't owe me anything."

* * *

he's not showing any signs of head trauma side effects.

Kopp3_medium(Courtesy of Jacksonville Jaguars)

Kopp appears to be one of the lucky ones. At age 42, he's not showing any signs of head trauma side effects despite suffering several concussions.

"The only time I ever came out of a game with a concussion was in high school, never in the NFL," Kopp says, when asked how many concussions he had in his career. "A few times I saw trainers, and I'll never say which teams, but a few times I saw trainers on the sidelines because they knew something was wrong and then I just said I was fine.

"The concussions where I was [knocked] out was one," Kopp continues. "And [the hits] when I knew something was off, probably three or four. But, the amount of times where you hit someone real hard and you don't blackout, but you get really foggy a few seconds ... it was a lot. I can't put a number on that."

What Kopp experienced is what a lot of the pre-1994 players experience, but their medical coverage post-playing career is much different. Kopp explains that he had great coverage his first five years out of the league, but for most that's when you need great medical coverage the least.

"Who needs the best coverage when you're 30?" Kopp says. "You need it when your 45, 55 and 65, when stuff starts to break down on a guy and they really start to notice that stuff, and that's gotten a lot better."

Coverage for players who played prior to the league's labor agreement in 1994 -- legends like Jim McMahon, Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson -- the expanse of medical coverage is different.

"There is different stuff for legacy players -- the 88 Plan -- there's a bunch of stuff that's pre-collective bargaining agreement," Kopp says.

The 88 Plan covers the cost of medical care for eligible players, for things such as institutional custodial care, home custodial care provided by an unrelated third party, physician services, durable medical equipment and prescription medicine. For a player to be eligible for the plan, they must be vested in the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan and be diagnosed with dementia.

The 88 Plan has an annual maximum benefit of $88,000 for institutionalized patients and a maximum of $50,000 for non-institutionalized care. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit contend that those benefits don't cover the scope of health care costs related to debilitating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease or ALS. The average cost of dementia care in the United States in 2010 was between $41,000 and $56,000, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

* * *

"Hey, you get dinged, you just suck it up and you clear your head and you go back in."

"We thought, 'Hey, you get dinged, you just suck it up and you clear your head and you go back in,'" Kopp says. "That was just the way, the thought process. Now it's not.

"Back then? No. We didn't think about that," Kopp says, when asked if he was aware of the risks associated with concussions. "If it's a preseason game or a preseason practice and you're trying to make a squad, no guy is ever going to protect themselves, and that's the mistake. A player's not going to try to protect himself if he's trying to make a team."

Even if the league didn't know the risks, players likely did -- or at least had some notion of the risk involved in playing football. But they were encouraged to choose to "shake off the cobwebs" and get back on the field to secure a roster spot, and thus their paycheck, or sit out and let someone else do it.

Players are often brought up being taught all the same dangerous cliches -- they should be tough, make sacrifices for their team and play injured, if at all possible.

Jeff Kopp knows that mentality well, having been a special teams player for much of his NFL career and always battling to make the final roster.

Kopp currently coaches football for Providence High School in Jacksonville and says that, even at the high school level now, you have to go through concussion courses.

"If we see a guy get dinged up, you have to take him off the field, you have to let the trainers know, you have to let the staff know," Kopp says. "That wasn't happening when I played in high school or college."

The changes that have trickled down to the Pop Warner, high school, and college level should begin raising awareness about how many concussions occur, however minor. Kopp feels that the changes being made will help coaches and players recognize exactly what a concussion is, and prevent players from further injuring themselves when they have one.

The risk of second impact syndrome (SIS), in which the brain swells rapidly after suffering a second concussion shortly after the first one, should be reduced from the heightened awareness of what a concussion actually is, even if it's deemed minor. SIS can occur immediately following a concussion, a few days or even a week if the symptoms have not gone away.

Re-classifying what a concussion actually is and having a set period of time players have to sit out after suffering them should significantly reduce the risk of SIS at all levels of football.

One of the other changes the NFL started making, which helped Kopp decide to remove his name from the lawsuit, was advancement in helmet technology.

Kopphelmets1_mediumKopp's son's Pop Warner helmet (left); Kopp's NFL helmet from 1988.

"Riddell has come out with several new helmets, I've bought one for my son, they're unbelievable," Kopp says. "What a kid can get in Pop Warner now compared to what was worn 10 years ago, the helmets are phenomenal. So, the NFL putting in millions and millions towards new research with Riddell, with other companies, I think that's a step in a positive direction."

The investment in helmet technology is something Kopp feels strongly about. The average NFL-caliber helmet costs a team around $350, but Kopp wonders if, in the long term, spending more money on better helmets is the best bet for the NFL going forward.

"Why is a guy that you're paying $5 million to wearing a $350 helmet? A guy in the military can be wearing a $10,000 helmet that flies helicopters or jets or something; why can't a franchise quarterback? Shouldn't he be wearing a $10,000 helmet that's custom fit for his head?"

* * *

"I don't know how they're going to prove something like this."

Despite the changes the league has put in place that have left Kopp, and other former players, satisfied with the direction of player safety, the lawsuit against the NFL remains. Kopp isn't sure how it could be proven the NFL knowingly hid the potential health consequences.

"That's one of those things that I don't know; how they're going to prove something like this," Kopp says.

"The Defendants acted with callous indifference to the rights and duties owed to Plaintiffs, all American Rules Football leagues and players and the public at large," the 2011 lawsuit claims. "The Defendants acted willfully, wantonly, egregiously, with reckless abandon and with a high degree of moral culpability."

The lawsuit is currently seeking an unspecified amount of damages, expanded medical coverage for post- and pre-1994 era players, which includes a neurological monitoring program. The monetary damages are believed to be well above the jurisdictional minimum of $25,000.

"I would be shocked if there was a settlement," Kopp says, when pressed about the possibility of an agreement out of court. "Personally, I just don't think the NFL will settle. And then what, the players get $10 each?

Jeff Kopp decided to retire from the NFL after he was released by the Seattle Seahawks during training camp in 2000. He spent five years in the NFL playing for the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots. Currently he resides in Jacksonville, where he owns a business, coaches football at Providence High School and co-hosts The Bold City Football Show on Sports Radio 930 along with Alfie Crow, the author of this piece.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Manager Big Cat Country dot com on the internet.