In January, President Obama’s appearance in the sports media made waves when he questioned whether he would let a hypothetical son play football. Last Friday, professional athletes, sports analysts and legal and medical experts gathered at the University School of Law to share their insight and opinions on concussions, the hot topic causing increasing debate across the sports world.
Concussion Conundrum, held in the Arthur M. Goldberg Commons at the University School of Law, was a function of the Jeffrey S. Moorad Center for Sports Law. Andrew Brandt, former Green Bay Packers VP, current ESPN analyst and director of the Moorad Center, moderated four panels of experts from various relevant disciplines.
The first panel consisted of four retired professional athletes. Former Philadelphia Eagles running back and University alum Brian Westbrook spoke alongside former Philadelphia Flyer Keith Primeau, retired NFL linebacker Jim Nelson and ESPN analyst and former pro soccer player Taylor Twellman.
Honest, informative and, at times, emotionally resonant, the athletes’ discussion included stories from their playing careers about the treatment of and difficulties surrounding players who sustain concussions, as well as insight into the current situation of head injuries in pro sports and the various leagues’ approaches to treatment and prevention.
During his 15-year career with four National Hockey League franchises, Keith Primeau sustained a number of head injuries. The last of these stemmed from an Oct. 25, 2005 hit by Montreal Canadiens forward and noted offender Alexander Perezhogin. After suffering from ongoing post-concussion syndrome that kept him from skating for nearly a year, the former Flyers captain officially retired prior to the start of the team’s preseason training camp in 2006. He was 34.
Now, Primeau devotes his time to coaching his son’s local youth team and promoting concussion awareness and prevention in the sports community through a book, website and media appearances.
“I don’t remember having any hesitation to return to play because I didn’t look at it as a chronic condition,” Primeau said.
Brian Westbrook does not remember the hit, but he recalled for the crowd, which packed the spacious Goldberg Commons despite the brisk Friday morning weather, the aftermath of a 2009 game against the Washington Redskins in which he was literally knocked unconscious by impact with an opposing player and experienced amnesia. After the game, one former NFL doctor told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Westbrook would miss a couple of weeks.
After Westbrook returned three weeks later for a game in San Diego, he again left early with a concussion. It was 2009, before head injuries to athletes had become a craze among journalists and executives alike, and the early exit was little more than a footnote in the box score. Little did most observers know that Westbrook’s bell-ringing was a signal of the end of his career. After playing sparingly for the 49ers in 2010, he officially retired as a member of the Eagles in 2012.
Despite being only 33 years old and two years into retirement, the former Eagles star revealed to the audience that he, like Primeau, already suffers from symptoms such as memory loss. He named blows to his head—specifically two concussions suffered in 2009, his last season with the Eagles—as the culprit.
“Hopefully,” he told the audience, “[the symptoms] do not continue to get worse.”
A common directive agreed upon by all speakers Friday morning was the importance of paying attention to players’ symptoms and ensuring that a thorough recovery, not a speedy one, should be the overriding priority.
Philadelphia-based personal injury lawyer Sol Weiss, University School of Law alum and lead counsel for a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 2000 former NFL players filed against the league last summer over its approach to head injuries, debated the validity of the suit during the symposium’s third panel.
The lawsuit names “dementia, depression, reduced cognitive ability, sleeplessness, early-onset Alzheimer’s and a debilitating and latent disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy” as some of the symptoms of injuries suffered during games that players may have been misinformed about.
One catalyst for the litigation was the death of retired NFL safety Ray Easterling last April. Easterling’s self-inflicted handgun wound was said to be the result of dementia stemming from head trauma sustained during his playing days.
Just last week, the NFL and General Electric held a press conference at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to announce a four-year, $60 million dollar collaborative effort to help better treat and prevent concussions with improved imaging technology and further research into the symptoms and effects—both short-term and long-term—of head trauma.
Other panels in the symposium included background discussion of the legal and medical aspects of concussions. Cailyn Reilly, a current student at the University School of Law, shared insight from her personal knowledge and research into head injuries among college athletes. The last panel featured Twellman again with three other ESPN analysts.
The Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law was founded in 2012 after a $5 million gift from Jeffrey S. Moorad, ’81. Concussion Conundrum was the first of what will become an annual Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium.