Ex-CFL players are threatening legal action, another reason concussions remain a league issue

The changing conversation on concussions and their long-term impacts has played out similarly north and south of the U.S. border in many respects. As in the NFL, there was a lot of initial skepticism in the CFL despite CTE being found in former players, and even if the northern league hasn't yet been accused of denying and obstructing to the extent their American neighbours have, it's certainly taken a while for them to come around on the dangers of hits to the head. Moreover, the NFL's undoubtedly improved its policies on concussion prevention, recognition and treatment in the last few years, and the CFL has made promising moves too, but there's still a lot both leagues can be criticized for. One area where things have been drastically different north and south of the border, though? Former NFL players sued the league over concussion-caused damages and got a settlement, one that was massively expanded this week. The CFL hasn't seen much legal action yet, but as Terry Ott writes at The Concussion Blog, that could change, as some former players are now openly threatening to sue the league:

[Former Argonaut Eric] Allen, now 63, is no longer employed. He has returned to South Carolina to be cared for by his elderly mother and five-day a week visiting home care professionals and is being treated at the Medical University of South Carolina for Parkinson’s-like symptoms, believed by Allen and his doctors to be the result of multiple concussions suffered during his playing days in the CFL.

In a recent telephone interview, Allen, who said he had at least four major concussions and returned to play in the same game after each incident, complained of severe headaches, dizziness and memory issues and said he was taking the Parkinson’s drug levodopa carbidopa although he also said it was “not working.”

Allen, when asked about returning to play after his concussions said of the team doctor, “I don’t think he looked at me,” and also said that recently he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer-like symptoms.

And Allen’s mother, Rebecca, said that Eric complains that “his head spins” and she said he had been falling, “a lot,” recently.

The family is now interested in finding a lawyer to discuss a possible lawsuit against the CFL for damages allegedly from concussions related to Allen’s playing career in Canada.

Finally, former Hamilton Tiger Cats running back, Phil Colwell, who was featured in the first installment of Third Down: Absence of CTE To Go continues to have serious, deteriorating memory and mood problems that he attributes to his many concussions received while playing in the CFL and is making noises about taking legal action against the league. He is terrified that he may develop CTE.

No lawsuits appear to have been filed yet, and these are just two players, but they could be the first of many. It's notable as well that one element that seemed to be a factor in the discussion of the lack of litigation against the CFL two years ago is no longer in play; the league's lack of money. The CFL has some significant revenue now, thanks to the massive new deal they signed with TSN (which could be worth $40 million or more annually) and thanks to how little of that increase is going to the current players thanks to the league's win in labour negotiations. Yes, there are still struggling teams, but there were rich ones under the old deal too, and they look to be getting even richer now. The amounts of money at stake are still nowhere near the NFL's, of course, but there might be enough out there to make some former players battling with the effects of concussions at least seriously contemplate taking legal action.

Of course, legal action wouldn't necessarily lead to a huge win for the players, as the American example illustrates. The NFL's initial concussion settlement was so limited that many players fought against it, and while the league agreed this week to remove the cap on damages, it's still far from a perfect resolution. The case against the NFL also appeared much stronger than the case against the CFL, as there's evidence of the southern league actively dismissing the dangers of concussions and covering up of what they knew. The CFL's been far from perfect on the concussion front over the years, but damaging evidence of that magnitude hasn't yet come to light, which could make suing the league more difficult than suing the NFL was.

Regardless of whether lawsuits are actually launched against the CFL in the near future, the league needs to be very cognizant of the possibility they'll be sued. Even without the threat of lawsuits, though, they should be motivated to do much more on concussions to protect their current players. Ott's series on concussions in the CFL demonstrates many of the issues that still remain, as do controversies on player return such as the Mike Reilly one last year, concussion-related retirements of young players like Dmitri Tsompas, and the league's decision to shoot down many of the players' safety proposals (including independent sideline neurologists). Concussions remain one of the biggest issues in any form of football, and the debate over how to handle them isn't going away. As Allen's and Colwell's comments (and the immense numbers of other cases) show, too, there are plenty of former CFL players facing significant health challenges that may be connected to their time in the league. We'll see if that winds up prompting legal action, but the possibility seems much less remote these days.

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