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As concussion legislation piles up in U.S., ex-CFL players take more conciliatory steps

Former NFL player and coach Carl Hairston (now with B.C.) is suing the NFL.

Concussions have developed into a massive issue at all levels of football, but the responses from former players on both sides of the border have been notably different. In the United States, the lawsuits are piling up, with over 2,200 former players currently suing the NFL in 79 different actions, which you can read more about at NFL Concussion Litigation. Plenty of prominent former players have become plaintiffs in those cases, too, including 15-year NFL veteran and current B.C. Lions' defensive line coach Carl Hairston. North of the border, players are also taking the news of concussions very seriously, with the CFLPA bringing up the issue with some disturbing (if somewhat questionable) statistics last offseason, prominent former players like Matt Dunigan speaking out about their experiences, many former players signing up for studies (including a new one at the University of Toronto, which will include CFL Alumni Association executive director Leo Ezerins and 19 other players with a history of head injuries and compare them to 20 former players without reported head injuries) and grieving families such as Doug MacIver's donating their loved ones' brains to research efforts. However, thus far, that hasn't developed into litigation. Why have the approaches been so different, and will that change?

Perhaps the most important reason is just the scale of these leagues' revenues. The NFL is one of the biggest sports organizations in the world, and the money the league and its franchises pull in is substantial. Thus, for former players suffering from the aftereffects of concussions, there's a prominent target out there with lots of money. That's not quite the same in the CFL; the league and most of its franchises are making profits, but those profits are minimal next to the NFL's, and suing the CFL doesn't seem like as an attractive proposition.

There are other factors involved too, though; Canadian legislation tends to make it tougher to file and win lawsuits than it is in the U.S., and the CFL has generally been proactive in addressing the concussion issue, working with players and alumni on many fronts thus far. There also hasn't been much discussion about CFL teams hiding evidence on the impacts of concussions from players, an allegation that features prominently in many of the NFL lawsuits. However, that doesn't mean that we won't ever see this kind of legal action pop up in Canada; much depends on the information that continues to come out about concussions, and how current and former CFL players react to that.

These lawsuits are obviously very serious for the NFL, but they would be even more worrying in Canada. As mentioned above, the NFL has plenty of money, so even a massive settlement or court award likely wouldn't doom the league. In the CFL, that's not necessarily the case; while the league as a whole's doing better at the moment than it has been at many periods in recent history, there isn't necessarily still a huge margin for error, and there are still some franchises with significant financial issues (particularly those in southern Ontario). A successful lawsuit might take the entire CFL down or severely hurt it if a massive amount of damages is awarded, and even an unsuccessful one could cost the league a large amount in legal bills.

Thus, the league needs to be incredibly serious about how it addresses concussions, and league bosses need to keep working with current and former players as much as possible to avoid litigation. Although there's much more to be done, the CFL's approach to concussions thus far has generally been very positive, from partnerships to set standards for education and treatment to proactive rule changes to address safety issues. If the league can build on that and stay on good terms with current and former players, maybe the CFL can avoid the wave of lawsuits currently plaguing the NFL.

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