Most everyone knows football is a dangerous sport, but some former NFL players think the NFL has obscured just how dangerous football can be.
Reggie Rucker, a former wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns and a plaintiff in a new lawsuit that alleges just that, said he would not have chosen to play football if he'd known what about the repercussions.
"You'd have to be crazy to play," Rucker said.
Rucker said earlier in the day he'd forgotten he had scheduled an interview with The Takeaway and called in late. Years after retiring from the NFL, he continues to suffer from episodes of short term memory loss, dizziness and blackouts.
The lawsuit, comprised of over 80 individual cases, alleges the NFL was intentionally hiding the connection between football and severe neurological trauma. It calls upon the NFL to take responsibility for players who suffer from Alzheimer's disease, dementia, memory loss and other related brain injuries.
But many football fans don't think the NFL should suffer for the injuries suffered by players. One Takeaway listener named Chad from Lovett, Texas, called in to say that injuries are part of the game.
"If giant men hit each other someone's gonna get hurt," he said. "You've got to take the blows and just deal with it."
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, The Takeaway's sports contributor, disagrees. He thinks it's time for the culture of football to tone down this macho attitude.
"I'm hoping this lawsuit can serve as a conversation about the culture of football itself. As men, we're told that our feelings are not to be listened to, that we're agressive and violent by nature, and our injuries are dismissed an unimportant. So it's almost as if Reggie is describing being treated as less-than-human or expendable," Abdul-Matin said. "That's the heart of this lawsuit. It's about 2,000 men stepping up and saying they're building a community, insisting on recognition of their humanity and their injuries actually do matter."
In a written statement released by the NFL, the league defended it's position on player safety.
"The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to do so," the statement said. "Any allegation that the NFL sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's many actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."
One NFL spokesman said the league has previously given out more than $17 million to 200 former NFL players and their families as part of several related benefit programs.
But Rucker thinks these assistance programs are insufficient. He said NFL officials have known for a long time about the health hazards faced by football players and did not do enough to protect them.
"You're talking about 32 billionaires whose net worth would be probably the size of the GDP of a small nation. So these are very powerful people. They did their own research, they had the results, they covered them up," Rucker said. "Who would want to try to intercept that profit line that the NFL has and admit to the players that there is something wrong?"
Rucker said the NFL expects players to behave like gladiators — to take heavy blows without complaint. But even gladiators can get hurt. Over 12 years as a professional football player, Rucker was treated for four concussions and an unknown number of "jarring" hits to the brain. Rucker said for a long time he felt as if he was the only one suffering from the effects of brain trauma, but the pending cases against the NFL have introduced him to other players with similar experiences.
"I'm hearing my colleagues come forward today and I feel this is emboldening me because it's now giving me the courage to talk about these this. These men are saying all the same things that I'm saying. (They're experiencing) forgetfulness, short-term memory loss, sleeplessness, fits of anger and rage. There's a commonality of interest among us," Rucker said.
Rucker thinks financial assistance from the NFL could help players cover their medical bills. He also wants more former players to speak out about the effects of football injuries so the next generation of football players will know what they're facing.
"I've decided to start to talk about this because I think the NFL was counting on that bravado thing, on (us) concealing and withdrawing. But I've been trying to make other former players know it's time to speak out, don't be afraid," Rucker said. "What we're talking about is the future of hundreds of thousands of youngsters who love this game."