While everyone thinks the concussion lawsuit filed by former NFL players against the league could change the game forever if successful, there is another suit out there that could also greatly affect the game.
Not if former NFL player Barrett Green wins his day in court against the Washington Redskins, former Redskins assistant coach Gregg Williams and former Redskins tight end Robert Royal because of a career-ending knee injury he suffered as a New York Giant during a game in 2004.
Williams, of course, achieved later infamy when he became defensive coordinator of the Saints and was suspended for a year for masterminding the "Bountygate" scandal. He now is a senior defensive assistant with the Titans.
But the Green suit indicates that bounties might have been posted by Williams even before he joined New Orleans in 2009.
The lawsuit, filed in May in Maryland state court and later moved to federal court, states that Green’s career-ending injury was the result of a bounty program and an “unusual, outrageous and an obvious cheap shot.”
The lawsuit also notes, “Other players on the field reacted with outrage at what they saw, and the play was later described as one of the dirtiest, most unfair hits in football.”
At the time of the “obvious cheap shot,” Green was in the first year of a five-year contract with the Giants worth more than $13 million, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also claims the injury cost Green approximately $10 million in lost wages from the contract as well as millions in future salary and benefits.
Does Green — a linebacker who played for the Lions and Giants from 2000 through one game in 2005 — have a case?
Furthermore, if he wins, does that open the floodgates and create opportunities for all players who have suffered injuries playing against Williams-coached teams to sue?
Gabe Feldman, a sports-law professor at Tulane University School of Law, calls Green’s case “very shaky, at best,” but he also realizes what might happen if the suit is successful.
“It would be an exploded Pandora’s Box,” says Feldman. “If you take it all the way down that slippery slope, you could conceivably say that Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and countless other players who’ve been injured versus Gregg Williams-coached teams could do the very same thing Green is doing now.”
It could potentially drag Bountygate into a legal rabbit hole unlike one we’ve seen before. Players could look to sue other players for injuries they deemed responsible for lost money. When dealing with Williams-coached teams, it becomes especially precarious.
If Green wins this case without any further proof or evidence provided than what’s already in the lawsuit, you could argue that just about every other player who’s been severely injured in games against Williams’ long list of former employers would have the same case.
“As an attorney, in any situation where there’s a group making allegations against anybody — and one or more of those individuals is successful in their lawsuit — it can certainly open the floodgates to other players filing suits and having success,” says Adam Swickle, a lawyer who represents several NFL players.
Still, Feldman says, he thinks we are a long way from that scenario playing out.
“I never say never, and there’s an element of unpredictably in all litigation, but he has several obstacles here — obstacles that go above and beyond even the next player that might want to bring on this case,” he says.
Green is alleging battery, essentially saying Royal committed a tort in 2004. From a sheer legality standpoint, the statute of limitations for battery cases in Maryland is three years from the day of the crime. Feldman points out that Royal’s “cheap shot” occurred nine years ago.
Green could make the case (and he will) that he could not truly confirm battery was committed intentionally until the Saints’ bounty scandal was brought to light on March 3, 2012.
Thus, the statute of limitations on the crime should begin in 2012, not 2004, he says.
In the lawsuit, it’s noted that on Dec. 7, 2004 — just two days after the hit — Green told the New York Post, “It wasn’t an accident, he shot at my legs; it was intentional. Hopefully the league will take notice, because they seem to do something when defensive guys do something.”
The problem with the quote, according to Feldman, is that it acknowledges Green was suspicious of the crime in 2004, eight years before the bounty scandal came to light. That suspicion, which is noted throughout the lawsuit, is what Feldman describes as “potentially fatal” for Green’s case.
Secondly, the mere act of stepping onto a football field could be enough for a judge to throw this case out.
“A basic principle when we talk about torts in the world of sports is that the athletes are assuming the risk of violent contact when they take the field,” says Feldman.
“Football is an inherently violent game, and it is so inherently violent that there is a category on the roster set aside for injured players. What other industry is there a list for people who get injured? You just know that when you step on the field, an injury is possible.”
Also, in a court of law, what happens on the playing field in sports is not viewed the same as what happens in the outside world. If someone attacks your knee in the supermarket, that’s a crime. It’s different on a football field. What might be a tort on the street is not illegal on the field. As long as it’s part of the game — it’s likely not illegal.
“We’ve seen cases like this in hockey before, but it has to be an extreme case,” Feldman says. “It has to be something that really goes beyond the rules of the game.”
It may come down to the evidence.
“It becomes a little more complicated if you have specific proof of a coach offering money to a player to intentionally injure a player,” says Feldman. “But there doesn’t appear to be any new evidence in this complaint. All we have is recitation of press reports and information from the NFL’s investigation. There’s no new evidence being brought to light here.”
Even though Williams coaches defense and Royal was playing tight end, Green alleges Royal also played defense and, thus, would have known about the bounties.
Both Michael McCallister, an attorney representing Green, and Bruce Allen, executive director of the Robert Royal Foundation (Royal’s charity, which battles childhood obesity), politely declined comment on the suit.
So as this plays out in the courts, fans will wait and see if an unspoken bond in the NFL comes under its most severe test.
“Professional football players very rarely sue players who injure them,” says Feldman. "There are probably several reasons for that — it’s not part of the culture, you don’t want to sue your brothers, or it’s just part of the game.
“There are plenty of cases where we see players sue a team or even the NFL, but we rarely see individual players sue other individual players for something that’s occurred on the field.”