Concussion litigation and struggling alumni, the elephant in the Grey Cup room

Canadian Football League Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge speaks at a news conference ahead of the CFL 103rd Grey Cup championship football game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, November 27, 2015. REUTERS/Lyle Stafford

WINNIPEG—CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge addressed much of the "turbulence" facing the CFL during his state of the league address Friday, but didn't have much to say on what's potentially the biggest storm on the horizon. That would be concussions, and specifically the concussion lawsuits the league is facing, both an individual one from Arland Bruce III and one seeking class-action status from Korey Banks, Eric Allen (who passed away this October at 69), and Rod Woodward. Orridge had lots to say about ratings slumps and the need to attract new, young fans, but declined to answer a question about the current status of those lawsuits.

"I really can't comment on anything that's under litigation right now, so I'm going to defer on that," he said.

A follow-up about plans to address concussions for people who have played in the CFL and who currently play in the CFL produced this response:

"The great thing is that this league has made tremendous strides and we do continue to work very hard on player health and safety. One of the things that we did this year is the partnership with the NFL, the new experimental concussion protocol, which has to do with, I'll spare you the technical details, but it has to do with eye movement, so we can get ahead of it and diagnose it even earlier on. We continue to work with medical professionals, as well as the NFL and other people in sport. You know, concussions are not unique to football, and they're certainly not unique to the CFL. Hockey, soccer, even competitive cheerleading, we're all faced with these things. I've got a couple of kids, right, I've got a 10-year-old and a five-year-old, both of them participate in sport. So, if anything, I'm very, very conscious of making sure that they participate in a safe environment. We're working to put all of Canada on the SafeContact program to make sure that blocking and tackling is done properly and safely. So there are a number of things in place, not just on the professional level, but certainly on the youth level."

That's not a bad response, and it does highlight some of the good things the CFL is doing. The new King-Devick test (the experimental protocol Orridge mentioned) is promising, as is the league's work with Football Canada on the SafeContact program. The league has generally seemed better on in-game concussion protocol recently, too; there appear to be less incidents recently where a potentially-concussed player stays in the game or returns quickly. However, there's still plenty that can be done on the concussion front, both in terms of funding research and in terms of ensuring concussions are prevented, diagnosed and treated as well as they possibly can be.

The part of that response about other leagues isn't entirely positive, though. While working with the NFL carries some benefits, that league doesn't have the greatest overall reputation on head injuries. Sure, it's working to change that, and NFL partnerships such as the King-Devick program are promising, but the CFL can't just rely on other leagues to lead the way, and it especially can't rely on the NFL to determine future concussion policies and practices. The NFL may have some good ideas and some that should be implemented in Canada (including independent neurologists, which that league has, and which the CFL has resisted), but the CFL should be considering those ideas on their merits and coming up with its own policies. Moreover, saying concussions are a cross-sport issue is also true (and this interesting series the National Post is running this week illustrates that), but that doesn't diminish how important they are in football. It's positive that the league's doing some promising things to address concussions with current players and concussion awareness and prevention for future players; whether the issue is receiving enough focus is another debate, but it's clear they are making some progress on this front.

The biggest issue, though, and the one that Orridge really didn't discuss at all, is about past CFL players who are currently suffering from the long-term effects of concussions. Those cases are numerous, and the players who are presently engaged in litigation against the league may be just the start; at least seven players have expressed an intention to sue the league, with four currently doing so. Without proactive efforts from the league to take care of alumni with concussions, the numbers could grow to be much larger than that. Plenty of former CFL players have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy found in their brains, and it's notable that 96 per cent of NFL players' brains tested for CTE came back positive. There are countless stories of living former CFL players struggling with concussions' aftereffects, too, and not much about anything the league's doing to help them. Without proactive efforts, it would seem likely more will resort to lawsuits.

This is where concussions as a cross-sports issue really do matter, especially when we consider the litigation in those leagues. The NFL reached a $1 billion settlement that may not be enough; the NHL lawsuit grew to 92 total players this week. The lawsuit implications are real, and they could be incredibly significant for this league. They may not be the most enjoyable thing to discuss in the party-filled atmosphere of Grey Cup Week, but they're key to the CFL's future. Now, just because Orridge didn't say much about concussions and concussion litigation doesn't mean he and the league aren't taking those issues seriously behind closed doors. Those doors are closed, though, so we don't know just what they're pondering.

Regardless of how much public talk concussions and concussion lawsuits receive, they're going to be one of the most important issues for the CFL in the coming years. They're an issue that isn't going away, and one that will only continue to grow. Orridge and the league aren't talking about these lawsuits much in public, but here's hoping they realize their importance and are acting accordingly in private to prepare for and deal with them.

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