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Report: NFL retirement board paid $2 million to ex-players while league denied concussion risks

Mike Webster in 1978. (Getty Images)

According to documents obtained in a joint investigation by PBS' "FRONTLINE" program and ESPN's "Outside the Lines," the National Football League's retirement board awarded at least $2 million in disability payments to at least three former players after reaching the conclusion that football was the cause of their brain injuries.

In 1999, the retirement board determined that the late Mike Webster, a Hall of Famer who played 17 seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers before finishing his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, was "totally and permanently" disabled due to repeated blows to the head he received as an active player. Webster passed away in 2002 at age 50 and was the first former player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy after donating his brain for research.

Bob Fitzsimmons, Webster's attorney in that disability case and the current co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, believes the conclusions reached by the retirement board to be the "smoking gun" in current lawsuits against the league.

"It's pretty devastating evidence," said Fitzsimmons. "If the NFL takes the position that they didn't know or weren't armed with evidence that concussions can cause total disability — permanent disability, permanent brain injury — in 1999, that evidence trumps anything they say."

There is little doubt that the conclusions reached in 1999 by the NFL's seven-member retirement board — which consists of three owner representatives, three player representatives and non-voting representative of the NFL commissioner — will be used in the lawsuit filed against the league by nearly 4,000 former players (and likely growing after today) who allege that the NFL engaged in a decades-long plan to cover up the link between concussions and permanent brain injuries.

The NFL has denied that it has concealed information regarding brain injuries and has filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.

In the wake of clear-cut evidence of a causal link between the game of football and brain injuries, the league has ramped up its efforts to create awareness of head injuries and has installed a number of player safety measures. In recent seasons, it's expanded the definition of what is a "defenseless" player and have levied steep fines and even suspensions on players who deliver illegal hits to the head and neck area of their opponents.

[Also: Legendary Raiders punter Ray Guy resigned over Hall of Fame snub]

On Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell discussed health and safety issues at the Harvard School of Public Health, making sure to "protect the shield" by hitting upon the league's talking points regarding recent advancement of scientific research into concussions and brain injuries, as well as providing an anecdote about the difficulties in changing a "warrior" mentality.

"The risk of injury in football is well known. Throughout history, football has evolved; it has become safer and safer again," Goodell said. "In recent years, there has been a much sharper focus on concussions in football and other sports. There are still unanswered questions, but scientists and doctors know more about concussions and their long-term potential effects than they did even a few years ago. The key issue for us is how we use this new understanding to make the game even safer and more exciting in the future.

"The culture of the athlete is still too much of a play-through-it, rather than player safety mentality. Many players have publicly admitted to hiding concussions and other head injuries," said Goodell. "I was recently at dinner with family friends. Their 15-year-old daughter plays field hockey and told me how during a recent game she hit her head on the turf and blacked out for a moment. She didn't tell anyone because she didn't want to come out. The next day she was diagnosed with a concussion. It's the warrior mentality — in a 15-year-old girl. This is unfortunate, but we are working with players, team doctors and coaches to change that culture. It is changing, but will take more time, resolve, patience, and determination."

Goodell also discussed how it was a "positive development" that three NFL quarterbacks were removed from games last weekend once they displayed symptoms of a concussion. What Goodell does not mention is that two of those quarterbacks -- Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers  -- remained in the game for several plays (six for Smith, seven for Cutler) after taking shots to the head that caused those concussions, resulting in another call from NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith to have independent concussion specialists on the sidelines.

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