In this treatise, Florida personal injury lawyer, Matt Dolman discusses the role physicians played in the recent NFL lawsuits. In 1994, the same year the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee was established, professional football player Junior Seau was named NFL’s Man of the Year. Last Wednesday, May 2, 2012, Seau shot himself in the chest, taking his own life. It is believed that Seau was suffering from the enervating disease that deteriorates one’s frontal lobes, dictates neurological impulses and eventually leads to death, often by suicide. The brain trauma he suffered from was almost certainly related to repeated blows to the head sustained over his NFL career.
Seau’s death has compelled many former NFL players to step forward and share their stories through lawsuits against the NFL. Past events have insinuated that Seau’s death is not an anomaly. Six former NFL players have died of abnormal causes including Andre Waters, Terry Long, Mike Webster, Shane Dronett, Dave Duerson, and Ray Easterling. The NFL is facing a serious concussion crisis, with hundreds of lawsuits filed over the past eighteen months against the league. But who is responsible? Is the league to blame for the epidemic of brain trauma that has recently come to ? The players? The coaches? The doctors? To reach a solution, understanding the doctor-patient relationship in the NFL is vital.
Many fans are under the impression that NFL doctors are the cream-of-the-crop; carefully selected by NFL teams to provide the very best medical attention to players, so their human investments can remain lucrative. Sadly, this is not always the case. Many believe doctors are paid a salary by the team; however, most team doctors actually pay the team hundreds of thousands of dollars themselves, to have rights as the team doctor. They ultimately obtain the privilege to promote themselves as the official team physician. This is not to suggest that team physicians are questionable doctors, because many times they are in fact exceptional, but that’s not usually how they got the job. Further, how well versed are these physicians in evaluating closed head injuries? As a Florida traumatic brain injury lawyer, I have seen many physicians ignore obvious clinical signs of a brain injury and focus on the more obvious orthopedic ailments.
So who’s really monitoring the concussions on the sidelines? Is it a skilled expert, or the most qualified member of the medical team that paid for the rights to be there? Either way, it’s evident that the majority of doctors on the field lack proper training in managing concussions. There are various protocols for treating concussions, all currently based on expert opinions and rarely on scientific evidence. These guidelines state that it is acceptable to return an athlete back onto the field if symptoms are minimal and temporary.
Let’s put this into perspective. It’s the final quarter and the quarterback is viciously tackled. He finds it difficult to stand up and noticeably stumbles. The QB makes his way to the sideline and complains he has a headache but otherwise he feels normal and he wants to be put back into the game. Should he? Is the team doctor liable to thoroughly examine the player? The answer is no. If the athlete does not ask for medical assistance then he may never receive it. If he is downplaying his symptoms and wants to be tenacious and get back out on the field, then he may even go so far as to refuse to be evaluated. Keep in mind a concussed athlete does not make practical decisions due to the symptoms of the concussion itself. If the athlete is examined, the physician must decide whether the athlete is well enough to return to play.
The athlete may be given ibuprofen for the headache, but that’s where treatment stops. There is no educational information given to the player regarding their concussion, because the clock is running and the game must continue on. With no educational information presented, the athlete returns back to practice and on to next week’s game. For years, this is how NFL players suffering from mild concussions were able to remain playing and remain putting themselves at risk for additional head injuries. Now that these players have retired, and permanent long-term damages are being brought to light, we are finally able to acknowledge the seriousness of concussions and post-concussion syndrome.
Physicians are now aware that head injuries have cumulative effects and that it is not okay for a concussed athlete to ever return back into a game.
League guidelines for head injuries have been established and experts in the field of concussions are now stationed on the sidelines. Former athletes seeking damages for lost wages, pain and suffering, and medical treatment as a result of brain trauma continue in their legal battles with the NFL. Their cases question the patient-team-doctor relationship. The league cannot erase the faulty judgments they have made in the past regarding head injuries, but they can continue to support safety measures that prevent unnecessary brain injury to current players.
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