LeRoy Butler would try to guess the number of concussions he suffered as an NFL player, but he knows any attempt to pinpoint specifics is futile.
“The word ‘concussions’ was not prevalent,” said Butler, who played with the Green Bay Packers during his entire NFL career (1990-2001). “When we played, it was just that your bell got rung or you’ve got cobwebs. It wasn’t widely known that you just went through trauma to the head.”
Butler is among a group of nearly 80 former Packers players — and more than 2,000 former NFL players overall — involved in lawsuits against the NFL over concussion-related issues. More than 80 pending lawsuits were consolidated into a master complaint list filed last week in Philadelphia.
Among the biggest points of contention by Butler and others is that the league withheld information regarding the dangers of concussions for years. By concealing that information, Butler said, star players would be more likely to return to games with more immediacy, helping to create a more appealing money-making product for the NFL.
The other purpose of the lawsuit is to hold the NFL responsible for providing health care to former players, some of whom are experiencing neurological disorders they believe stem from playing professional football. Butler said the NFL provides health care to former players for five years after their last game, but nothing beyond that point.
“Everybody in your 20s and 30s, you feel good enough and the adrenaline is enough where everything is normal,” said Butler, 43. “But when the adrenaline stops and you start to age, all those hits catch up with you. Once your brain is damaged, you can’t get another brain. You can get another knee. Hell, you can get another heart. But you can’t get another brain. Once you hurt that, you’re screwed.”
Tony Mandarich, the No. 2 overall draft pick by the Packers in 1989, estimated that in his six-year career he suffered six to 10 concussions that were officially on the books from doctors — and perhaps even more that went unrecorded.
Mandarich, who spent three of those years with the Indianapolis Colts, said the standards for determining concussions were severely lacking when he played.
“This is how Mickey Mouse the protocol used to be,” said Mandarich, who also is suing the NFL. “You get your bell rung, you get on the sideline and it’s like, ‘Do you know what year it is? Do you know who the president is?’ If you pass those tests, you’re good to go.”
However, Mandarich, 45, admitted that even if the NFL had presented information disclosing the long-term effects of concussions, 95 percent of players in the league would still want to play. But he also noted that, of the 95 percent, some might be more willing to take extended time off or retire after the next concussion.
As part of the class-action lawsuit, lawyers representing the players will focus on research conducted by the mild traumatic brain injury committee from 1994 to 2007, which shows a direct correlation between football and brain injuries. Plaintiffs will argue the NFL neglected to share that research.
Of course, players involved in the lawsuit could face a slippery slope because the NFL has denied withholding any information about concussion dangers. The league also will try to have the case dismissed by arguing the issues were governed by the collective bargaining agreement in place at the time.
“The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so,” an NFL spokesperson said in an emailed statement to FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players had no merit. It stands in contrast to the league’s actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
In addition to the dispute regarding the dangers of concussions, former NFL players are fighting for health care to be provided by the league. For most players, the signs of body degeneration occur well after a playing career — and well after the five-year health care window given by the NFL to players expires.
Dave Roller, a seven-year NFL veteran who played for the Packers from 1975-78, said he underwent knee replacement surgery that cost nearly $100,000. He said the NFL offered him $5,250 in assistance.
“You almost had to pull teeth to get that out of them,” said Roller, 62, who also is involved in the class-action lawsuit. “It took me forever. I’m grateful that they helped a little bit, but a little bit is nothing.
“Come on guys, why don’t you give us Blue Cross Blue Shield across the board and cut it off wherever you think? They started making more money than God, and that way they can take care of themselves.”
Butler, who played in 181 regular season NFL games, said he now experiences occasional memory loss, as well as blurred vision, neck problems and inability to sleep.
Mandarich said he, too, began to experience memory and motor-skills issues in the past 18-24 months and worries about the possibility of dementia. In the past two years, former NFL players Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Junior Seau have died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Duerson and Easterling both suffered from dementia.
Butler, Mandarich and Roller each insist the class-action lawsuit is not part of a money grab by former players. They say the lawsuit is a matter of principle, to make the league do what they believe is right.
“They can take my share of the money and donate it, whether it’s to the NFLPA or whether it’s to the NFL for concussion research,” Mandarich said. “I don’t want their money. I don’t need their money. The only thing I would take from them is if they offered health care. I’m in it for the quality of life of the players that have left the game and the future players that are going to leave the game.”
Roller noted that in 2010, the NFL earned $9 billion in revenue — a figure he believes could be used to assist former players in need of health care.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them roll over me and take $9 billion a year and not do something for us,” Roller said. “I could care less about the owners. I could care less about the NFL. But they’re going to take care of us one way or the other.”
FOXSportsWisconsin.com’s Paul Imig contributed to this story.