Concussion crisis grows, with Rod Woodward joining CFL suit and new NFL CTE data

Former Ottawa DB Rod Woodward (L), seen at an event with former teammates including K Gerry Organ (C) and Tom Pullen (R), is now suing the CFL over concussions. (

The concussion crisis in football continues to expand, and that's going to have substantial impacts on the game on both sides of the border. In the U.S., PBS broke the story Friday that 87 of the 91 (96 per cent) of former NFL players' brains tested by researchers from Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs have shown signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the disease at the heart of many of the most severe concussion issues. Those stats don't say how many tested brains from former CFL players have had CTE, but we know of at least four who have been confirmed with it; Jay Roberts and Bobby Kuntz, Doug MacIver and Cookie Gilchrist, and there may be many more out there. We don't know if the percentage will be quite as high in the CFL as it's been shown to be in the NFL, but these findings confirm that CTE is incredibly widespread amongst many former professional football players.

More immediately important to the CFL, though, TSN's Rick Westhead reported this week that another former player has joined the lawsuit Korey Banks and Eric Allen filed against the league in June. (This is separate from the lawsuit Arland Bruce III filed against the CFL last year, which is also still ongoing). That player is Rod Woodward, who had a 12-year CFL career as a defensive back and earned three East all-star nods with Ottawa. (You can see former Rough Riders teammate Gerry Organ interview him at a Redblacks event in 2013 here.) What's particularly interesting about Woodward's case? The lawsuit is filed by his wife, Kay, who has his power-of-attorney, and she's alleging that the head trauma Woodward suffered in the CFL is what led to his 2009 conviction for stealing $185,000 from two elderly clients of his investment firm:

In 2009, Woodward was sentenced to one year in jail after a court heard that while working for an investment firm he had used some of his clients' money to pay gambling debts.

Woodward said he had simply borrowed the money and intended to repay his former clients.

"His football prowess, which defined his earlier life, has been forever eclipsed by this tawdry act," a judge said at the time.

For years, Kay Woodward said her family has lived with the shame of her husband's conviction.

"This is not a noble disease like cancer is," she said in an interview with TSN. "For years, we just didn't know how to understand Rod's changes in behaviour. He became suspicious of everyone, thought our phones were tapped, wanted us to close our curtains all the time, and didn't want us to talk to anyone."

Tod Woodward, Rod's son, said he read a Sports Illustrated article several years ago about the late NFL star linebacker Junior Seau. Seau killed himself in 2012 at age 43, and was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive head injuries, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

Seau's family said he had never been diagnosed with a concussion while playing football, but said he suffered from mood swings, insomnia and depression.

"I read that story and thought, This is starting to make sense now, this is what is happening to dad," Tod Woodward said.

It still isn't really possible to diagnose CTE in the living, although substantial progress is being made on that front, so whether Woodward and the others suing the CFL have that specific disease right now isn't easily provable. However, CTE has been known to cause dramatic changes in behaviour; Seau's case is one to consider, but also look at those of Mike Webster and Dave Duerson. Also, while the players suing the CFL may not have been confirmed to have CTE yet, they all have substantial recorded histories of neurological problems, many of which have also been tied to football-related head trauma. That's the case with Woodward. Here's what Westhead writes about his diagnosis:

After going to brain specialists, Rod Woodward was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD. Frontotemporal dementia is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's disease, said Nina Strohminger, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Management who has studied mental illness and dementia.

FTD affects the so-called executive function in the brain, Strohminger said in an interview. It can change self-control and affect the moral compass. People with the disease sometimes steal, become problem gamblers, cheat on their spouses, or become pathological liars or apathetic.

"It's very hard for families to cope with," Strohminger said.

Former Ottawa DB Rod Woodward is now suing the CFL. (
Former Ottawa DB Rod Woodward is now suing the CFL. (

It's notable that FTD is often associated with the buildup of tau proteins in the brain, which is also frequently a sign of CTE. As stated above, there's no particularly concrete way to diagnose the living with CTE right now, but that may not matter. Those suing the CFL can prove at the least that they have substantial neurological issues that may be related to football, and it's also possible that families of the deceased CFLers who have received confirmed CTE diagnoses could join this lawsuit.

That's another interesting element of Woodward's story here; while Banks and Allen sought class-action status in their initial June filing, he's the first player to join their suit. We'll see if others follow (keep in mind that up to seven former CFL players have been reportedly preparing litigation against the league; Woodward's involvement makes it four who have actually filed, so there are still some out there who are definitely looking at it), but if the new NFL data bears any relation to the CFL, there may be a whole lot of former CFL players out there experiencing the aftereffects of a career filled with head trauma. Woodward's case also shows that more of them may be willing to sue over that. This is a critical issue facing the CFL, and it's one that's likely to impact the league for years to come.