The following article was written by Spencer Wingate.
Wally Hilgenberg, a 16-year NFL veteran, died from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2008. His family donated his organs to Boston University School of Medicine. Shockingly, in 2010, the school announced the doctor’s original diagnosis was mistaken. Hilgenberg had actually died from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive degenerative disease found in individuals suffering from repeated head injuries. Symptoms sometimes do not appear for decades after the injuries first occur.
Following his retirement from football in 1979, Hilgenberg had started a successful real estate business. However, beginning in 2003, he began to suffer from memory loss and muscle weakness. Wally’s son Eric Hilgenberg is claiming the NFL’s negligence led to his father’s death. He is suing the NFL for wrongful death on his own behalf, father’s estate, and for his mother. The complaint states the NFL has repeatedly distorted its’ own data regarding neurological disorders. His suit claims that since the 1960s, the NFL has been aware of the dangers of concussions, but continuing into 2009, has kept refuting the data. The Hilgenberg family is represented by Larry Coben and Sol Weiss with Anapol, Schwartz. They are seeking reimbursement from the NFL for charges of concealment, civil conspiracy, and negligence.
More than forty former players and their wives filed a similar complaint against the NFL. NFL Network Analyst Brian Baldinger (amongst others) is claiming that the NFL refuses to acknowledge the greater risk of former players to suffer from post traumatic brain injuries. Gene Locks, led by Britt and Bridgette Hager, is representing the plaintiffs.
Both suits contend the NFL needs to develop appropriate means to identify at-risk players and guidelines for returning to play. After retirement, players are forced to deal with long-term injury and illness. They believe the NFL cannot continue to deny long term mental health disabilities that their scientific research confirms. Players commonly have dizziness, memory-loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and encephalopathy that can sometimes lead to a premature death. Courthouse News’ report of the story references the tragic death of Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson in February 2011. Duerson shot himself, presumably to save his brain. He was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Earlier this month it was reported that the NFL was attempting to insert a waiver into players’ contracts forcing them to waive their right to sue over medical issues. The NFL denied the claim and the NFLPA stated they would not allow such a waiver. As lawsuits against the NFL continue to emerge, the same issues continue to surface. The league must be held accountable for the safety of current and former player. However, football is an incredibly physical game. Injuries are part of game that can never be fully eliminated; just hopefully reduced. The NFL’s attempts at rule changes in the name of safer play have been met with intense scrutiny. Players’ competitive nature and passion for the game causes them to play through injuries. The NFL and players must understand that safety is the utmost concern. Controversy is inevitable regarding rule changes and players’ safety. Anytime the status quo is altered reactions will be mixed. The NFL and NFLPA must make the tough decisions to implement a system that ensures the well being of players, not only now, but further down the line.