Mark Rypien is a Super Bowl MVP and champion, a former quarterback for the Washington Redskins and other teams who reached football’s pinnacle and now wonders at what cost.
His memory failing him, the 49-year-old Rypien tape-records significant conversations with his girlfriend, he explains, “So we can go back … when I vehemently say, ‘I did not say that.’” He suffers from depression, which Rypien finds particularly worrisome when he thinks about his cousin Rick, an NHL enforcer who faced that condition for years before committing suicide at age 27 in August. Rypien wants to know what happened to the “fairly mellow individual” he once was, before he became more impulsive and irritable.
Concerns such as those are why Rypien put his name alongside those of several hundred — and, lawyers involved say, soon perhaps more than 1,000 — ex-players who are suing the NFL in federal court in Philadelphia. They say the league didn’t do enough to inform players about the dangers of head injuries and protect them from concussions in the past, and it isn’t doing enough to take care of them today.
What began last summer as a couple of cases with a handful of plaintiffs is growing week by week: An attorney who submitted the suit that includes Rypien and more than 120 others, Craig Mitnick, said that he was filing yet another complaint Friday, adding about 70 plaintiffs to the total.
Among the new plaintiffs: Golden Richards, who scored a touchdown in the Dallas Cowboys’ 1978 Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos; A.J. Duhe, the 1977 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, probably best known for his three interceptions for the Miami Dolphins against the New York Jets in an AFC championship game; Curt Warner, who ran for more than 6,000 yards after being taken by the Seattle Seahawks with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1983 draft out of Penn State; and Rypien’s Redskins teammate Chip Lohmiller, the second-team All-Pro placekicker in 1991. Mitnick also has been retained by other former players who have authorized him to put their names on future filings.
There is strength — and symbolism — in the continually rising numbers of former players taking the NFL to court, they believe.
“If, for some reason, this doesn’t go in favor of us, we’ve at least reached out and shown there’s a group of concerned former athletes struggling with their own issues that wants to build awareness so that no one else has to go through what we’re going through,” Rypien said. “If that’s the only thing we get out of this, that’s a win. We can make some changes, so these guys (playing in the NFL now) don’t have to endure what some of us are enduring.”
The lawsuits began in the wake of a growing body of scientific evidence connecting repeated blows to the head and long-term brain damage. Most of the cases are now linked and before a judge in Philadelphia; the first procedural hearing is about a month away.
“The common person will say, ‘They knew what they were doing. They knew the risk that was involved.’ And my answer is, ‘Yes, so does every policeman and every fireman in the country. And they wouldn’t face the same criticism that these ballplayers are facing.’ … They relied on the league as their medical experts and the league withheld medical information that could have improved all of these guys’ lives,” Mitnick said. “You have to put health before money, and you have to put health before the word ‘win.’”
NFL spokesman Greg Ailleo declined to comment Friday, other than to note that the cases are in “their very early stages.”
As these suits have emerged, the NFL or its lawyers have said players knew there were risks of injury when they decided to play football; there was no misconduct on the part of the league; the league did not intentionally seek to mislead players; and it has taken action to better protect players and to advance the science of concussion management and treatment.
The specific allegations against the NFL vary from lawsuit to lawsuit, as do what the plaintiffs are seeking. Aside from individual injury claims, Mitnick’s clients want the league to pay for medical monitoring — so ex-players can be checked for cognitive problems — and whatever the appropriate care would be.
“When I first told my wife I was interested (in joining the case), she said, ‘You know, we’ve never sued anyone in our lives.’ But the more I thought about it, this is not about trying to win hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Rich Miano, a starting defensive back for the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s and 1990s. “It’s about education about concussions and head trauma and the education it will bring all the way down to high school and junior varsity and Pop Warner.”
Miano said he has short- and long-term memory problems and blames what he figures could have been 10 to 20 concussions during his playing days.
“There were a lot of vicious collisions, and you would have loved to come out of the game and get the tests they have now, (but) everybody was so worried about losing your job,” Miano said. “In those days, you don’t talk about it, you don’t report it, you continue to play, you continue to practice.”
Asked what he was told about brain trauma when he was in the NFL, Miano said: “Absolutely zero. I don’t remember them ever talking about concussions or any long-term effects or short-term effects or any kind of effects. … There was no baseline testing. There was no posters put up in the locker room. … Whatever information they had in those days, they did not want to reveal it to us, and obviously that’s part of this whole lawsuit.”