Bruce Smith Is the Latest to Sue the NFL: Who Will Be the Tipping Point?

Tony SarnoffContributor IIJuly 21, 2012

Bruce Smith
Bruce SmithJoe Robbins/Getty Images

This week, Bruce Smith. Last week, Priest Holmes

It seems like at the end of every week another big name player announces a lawsuit for damages allegedly caused by playing in the NFL. And of course the name on the suit is merely the lead plaintiff.  In Smith’s suit there are 37 other players, including running back Ottis Anderson and defensive back Deron Cherry

In the beginning few ‘stars’ seemed to be suffering the ill effects of concussions.  The subtext for the bleachers was that most of those filing suit were guys who had squandered their money and merely needed a dole.  Or else, this was all in a day’s work for greedy attorneys.

In fact, that was not quite true.  If some players—and attorneys—saw this as easy money, most of the players were suffering real effects. 

And then came the suicides. The NFL has seen 12 suicides in 25 years.  Three in the last 18 months that have been tied directly to concussions:  Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson. 

And then three have been three more suicides tied directly to concussion, going back to 2005: Shane Dronet, Andre Waters, and Terry Luther Long.

According to a tally kept by The Washington Times, Smith’s is the 112th lawsuit, and the total number of players involved in suit is 2,770.

Incidentally, Smith is the 22nd Hall of Famer to sue over concussions and one of two other Hall of Famers with the Redskins: Paul Krause and Art Monk.

Think of it: Bruce Smith, twice Defensive Player of the Year, 11 Pro Bowls, 8 times a first-team All-Pro.  And finally, the Hall of Fame.

The significance is this.  As the stature of those filing suit continues to grow, as well as sheer numbers, the public relations problem for the NFL becomes greater. 

You wonder when the dam will break, when a commissioner or a committee finally says, “enough.”  Enough, we have to change the way this game is played now.  Not next generation, not next year. 

Does that become an admission of guilt?  Perhaps. 

But it’s clear now that the game cannot go on as it is.  The game you and I played in school, at whatever level, is a sand castle at the tide’s edge. 

And perhaps the discussion about concussions in football will dovetail in other quarters of the society with a discussion about violence in general. 

A few days ago, on the Dan Patrick Show, Troy Polamalu said he’d had eight or nine recorded concussions, but “we’ll have another conversation when I’m finished playing football.”

If he can have another conversation. 

But he made another point, which is the heart of the matter.  This sport has a blue-collar, tough-guy code that goes with it.  He compared playing football with an injury to a coal miner going down into the ground who’s ill; let’s say with lung disease. 

Both player and miner suffer pain—for the money—but more because that’s the expectation, that’s the norm, the tradition.  That’s what gives each profession a measure of nobility.

And that’s the difficult part in this transition from a game played in one way to a game played in another way. 

The people that end up changing NFL rules to make the game less dangerous need to find a way to keep that blue-collar ethos, because that’s something heroic that we can look to in tough times. 

Not only financially tough times, but times when cultural values seem unclear or relative.