The late Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Steelers and Chiefs from 1974 to 1990, might be on the verge of developing notoriety for something else: changing the tide of the legal concussion battle between former players and the NFL.
According to documents obtained by PBS' Frontline show, the NFL's retirement benefits board acknowledged the brain damage suffered by Webster in a May 2000 letter to attorney Robert Fitzsimmons. The board also reportedly paid out more than $2 million in benefits to multiple players for brain-damage related injuries while, Frontline contends, the NFL "consistently denied any link between the sport and long-term brain damage."
"The Retirement Board determined that Mr. Webster's disability arose while he was an Active
Player," Sarah Gaunt, the retirement board's plan director, wrote in the letter. "The medical reports in Webster's file, including the reports of neutral physician Dr. Edward Westbrook, Dr. James Vodvarka, and Dr. Jonathan Himmelhoch, indicate that his disability is the result of head injuries he suffered as a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs."
That paragraph, in and of itself, sounds pretty damning, given that the crux of the lawsuit between thousands of former players and the NFL is that the NFL purposely concealed information about the dangers of concussions for the league's players.
The NFL declined to comment for the PBS story, but NFL VP of Communications Greg Aiello pointed out that the retirement benefits board is independent of the league, and the decisions made by the retirement board "are not made by the NFL or by the NFL Players Association."
Perhaps that sounds like a technicality, but the legal system is built on technicalities.
Still, the timing isn't good for the league. The PBS report quotes a paper from the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (mild!) from a December 2005 issue of Neurosurgery, the official journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.
The committee wrote "Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis," according to PBS.
The PBS report also asserts that the retirement board paid out "total and permanent" disability benefits to multiple other players, whose names were redacted from documents, but whose injuries stemmed from "repetitive trauma to the head or brain from League football activities." Additionally, PBS concludes -- based on interviews -- that "additional" unverified cases of benefits paid out for head trauma exist.
If these cases can be found to exist and the timing of the payments overlap with direct denials from the league and if the league had direct knowledge of the payments being distributed and, most importantly, why they were distributed, this would be a very bad thing for the NFL as it relates to the lawsuit filed by the former players.