NEW YORK CITY — The NFL willfully deceived players about the debilitating impact of concussions and football-related collisions in order to protect its profits, according to a blistering lawsuit by New York Jets great Bill Mathis.
Since the 1960s the league has known of published research that shows the short- and long-term neurological impact of concussions, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court. But Mathis, 73, accuses the NFL of glamorizing the sport's gladiator aspect of vicious hits and bone-crunching tackles while advancing bogus research and opinions that contradicted valid medical research.
A running back who rushed for 3,589 yards between 1960 and 1969, Mathis suffered multiple traumatic head impacts and concussions during his career, and now has Alzheimer's disease and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the lawsuit says.
He is suing the NFL, blaming the league for his injuries and for "promoting a product of brutality and ferocity."
The lawsuit charges that in the 1990s the NFL created a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, a supposedly independent board to study the effects of the hits players endure.
In reality, the committee had at least five people with NFL affiliations, including its chairman, Dr. Elliot Pelman, a Jets physician and rheumatologist "who lacked any specialized or education relating to concussions," the lawsuit said.
Mathis accuses the committee of downplaying the connection between traumatic brain injuries and degenerative neurological disease — findings that fly in the face of decades of published medical research. The committee also published 16 papers between 2003 and 2009 declaring there was no long-term negative health consequence with concussions, the lawsuit says.
"The NFL negligence allowed the MTBI Committee members to mislead [Mathis], other former NFL committees, and the general public regarding the permanent brain injury risks associated with repetitive head impacts in the game of football," the lawsuit says.
As a result the committee's false conclusions, Mathis "did not take the protective measures or seek the diagnosis and treatment he would have sought had the NFL told him the truth," the lawsuit says.
The NFL did not immediately comment. Over the past few years, many retired players have spoken publicly about how they now suffer from neurological disorders, including dementia and depression.
In 2010, in response to growing concern about brain trauma, the NFL created the Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee to monitor health-related issues, study injury data and increase player safety.
The Mathis' lawsuit claims that through its films, the NFL has promoted a "culture in which playing hurt or with an injury is both expected and acclaimed in a mythical gladiator world."
The former gridiron star accuses the NFL of purposely dragging its feet on implementing safety precautions to guard its sizeable revenue, which is estimated at $9.3 billion a year.
"The NFL deliberately delayed implementing changes to the game it knew could reduce players' exposure to the risk of life-altering head injuries, because those changes would be expensive and would reduce the NFL's profitability," the lawsuit says.
Mathis accuses the NFL of a "concerted effort of deception and denial," even as it knew of players retiring because of multiple concussions. The lawsuits cites the New York Jets' Pro Bowl receiver Al Toon, who retired in 1992 after developing brain injuries.
Mathis played his entire career in New York, first with the Titans, which became the Jets in 1963. He was on the team that won the 1969 Super Bowl. He was twice voted All-Pro, and he played in three Pro Bowls.
The AFL and the NFL were separate leagues when Mathis was a running back. They merged into one league after the 1969 season. The lawsuit says the NFL became the successor in interest by the merger.