May 22, 2017
“This Complaint sets forth an unparalleled story in American sports: it begins with a stunning conspiratorial arrangement and ends with the horrific death of Adrian Robinson, Jr.” So begins a lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania state court on May 15.
The complaint reaches back decades into the history of the NFL and its partnership with helmet-maker Riddell and establishes a decades-long pattern of cover-ups and deception which the complaint claims, cost 25 year old Adrian Robinson, Jr. his life.
The narrative begins long before Robinson was born. By the 1960s at the latest, the complaint states, “the federal government had already studied CTE in a cohort of the concussed; substantial research had progressed on CTE in boxing; and NFL teams had actually experimented with soft-shell helmets in concussed players to mitigate blows.” Indeed a decade earlier in 1952, The New England Journal of Medicine recommended “a three-strikes rule for concussive exposures and football.” Instead of using this knowledge constructively, however if one follows the rabbit hole through the looking glass of the details in this lawsuit, a conspiracy emerges; one “designed to insulate [the NFL and its co-conspirators] from litigation exactly like this.”
From the complaint:
“Beginning with the 1961-62 NFL Football season (if not before), Defendants NFL and RIDDELL were made aware of the football-helmet telemetry study of Dr. Stephen Reid, sponsored by the American Medical Association. It provided helmet manufacturers including Riddell with actual knowledge of research on clinical concussive exposures (known medically as “mild-traumatic brain injury” or “MTBI”) and subclinical MTBI exposures in NFL and NCAA football… His telemetry study sought to detect brain damage in NFL and NCAA football players and to improve helmet efficacy; he would eventually acknowledge a “cumulative effect” of blows to the head in these studies.
By 1969, the NFL sponsored a symposium with the U.S. Government on “Football Injuries”, which focused on football-related head injury and contained presentations from leaders in helmet-science research as well as on brain damage. By this early date, the NFL and Riddell. . . gained knowledge—actual knowledge—of substantial risks to the brain from the game.”
American football has been violent and dangerous from the beginning. The complaint notes that football has been associated with certain risks since its inception around 1910, and as such, “a body of peer-reviewed scientific literature began to emerge associating football exposure with certain long-term neurocognitive and neurobehavioral dysfunction.” The NFL’s head of officiating acknowledged this in the 1960s as he wrote in an internal communication:
In order to change the narrative that football is dangerous the NFL retained the Stanford Research Institute – a firm which had performed early studies on smoking – finding no link between tobacco use and cancer, to conduct studies on football injuries.
“Also in 1969, Defendant Riddell, with support for the idea in Defendant NFL’s “Football Injuries” symposium, created the National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment (“NOCSAE.”) NOCSAE’s helmet standards in the 1970s have only tangential relevance to concussion or sub-concussive blows and nevertheless this standard of “Gadd severity index” (“SI”) has remained in force as the only standard for four decades.”
Moving into the 1970s a connection between soccer players heading footballs and CTE was being studied and presented at the leading biomechanics conference worldwide in 1975. The NFL refused to acknowledge the link.
By the 1980s death and paralysis verdicts had the helmet industry on the verge of collapse. Enter the NFL. A deal was made with Riddell, and according to the complaint, the parties “became jointventurers in protective-equipment fraud.” NFL Clubs got free helmets and Riddell enjoyed the spoils of being the NFL’s official helmet. Though the dangers of hard-shelled helmets in regard to repetitive low-impact blows were documented as early as 1969, recommended softer shelled designs never caught on, with “aesthetic concerns” trumping heath concerns
But, as Plaintiffs’ attorney Brad Sohn points out in the complaint:
“[B]y the 1990s, decision-making about football helmets from the 1960s and 1970s was returning to haunt the NFL. The choice to move toward hard-shell, motorcycle-style helmets—while highly effective against acute damage—was creating two long-term crises; a financial crisis for the football industry; and a pandemic for those playing the game. Players were becoming disabled with neurocognitive and behavioral sequelae at astounding rates; others still were suing NFL doctors due to acute problems from football exposure.”
As these dangers and deficiencies became more apparent, the NFL and its allies could have come clean; they could have disclosed the risks as well as the deficiencies in the equipment, but they did not. Instead they continued to prioritize profit over players and devised a long-term holding strategy.
While Adrian Robinson Jr. was still toddling in diapers the NFL and company decided to get into the business of “research.” They established a committee on MTBI and used the NFL Charities to, as the complaint stated, “create self-serving pseudo-science on repetitive brain injury. . . they would fund unethical and flawed scientific studies to advance self-serving conclusions on testing methodologies, on brain injury, and on protective equipment-specifically football helmets and to a lesser extent mouthpieces.”
A few years passed. Riddell helmets, the official helmets of the NFL were proclaimed “safe” and endorsed by USA Football, the NFL’s youth marketing arm. “Heads-up football” was marketed to moms, turning them into “coaches” who had no way of knowing this would not save their kids. A Huffington Post article takes a deep dive into the strategies used by the NFL to hook kids and deceive parents, based on insider interviews which characterize the NFL’s efforts to hook kids “both brilliant and devious.” Terri and Adrian Robinson, Sr. drank the Kool Aid and enrolled their young son in youth football.
George Dohrmann, author of the Huffington Post article wrote, “Over and over, I heard comparisons between the league’s marketing work and that done by the coal industry or Big Tobacco, conjuring images of Joe Camel in a helmet and shoulder pads.” The lawsuit solidifies that position in stating, “In addition, they undertook concerted effort that deprioritized human life in the face of profit oft-analogized to the strategies of “Big Tobacco.” Remarkably, in fact, the two industries contained overlapping key officials, counsel, and worked in concert with one another.”
One such instance occurred when Matt Hazeltie, Gary Lewis and Bobby Walters, all of whom played together for the San Francisco 49ers were diagnosed with ALS in the same window of time in the early 1980s. NFL Charities recruited a neurologist, Dr. Stanley Appel, who was at the same time doing favorable tobacco-industry “research” to “study” the linkage. The complaint states, “Upon information and belief, Dr. Appel received this grant money not to undertake good-faith scientific study, but instead, to support Defendants self-serving and predetermined conclusion that no such link existed.” He became an outspoken critic of the generally accepted scientific connection between brain trauma and ALS.
Plaintiffs’ counsel has researched and assembled a vast quantity of detailed documentation revealing the self-serving, sham research undertaken on behalf of the NFL and its official helmet maker and the legal schemes to sell it. The lawsuit almost reads like a John Grisham novel – just when you think things can’t get any worse – they do:
“NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell testified to Congress that “[w]e recognize that our example extends to all young athletes who play football” and further bragged in support that they had shared and publicized the controversial, and later-discredited MTBI Committee research. The concealment and misrepresentations and omissions related to severe neurological risks of repetitive subclinical and clinical MTBI exposed players like Robinson Jr. to dangers he could have avoided had the Defendants provided truthful and accurate information.”
The NFL’s bogus MTBI committee entered study after study in the professional journal, Neurosurgery and spread its fraudulent gospel to professional football players, youths, and fans alike. The following examples from the complaint reflect the type of information available to families like the Robinson’s.
- Pellman and Viano stated, that because a “significant percentage of players returned to play in the same game [as they suffered a concussion] and the overwhelming majority of players with concussions were kept out of football- related activities for less than 1 week, it can be concluded that [MTBIs] in professional football are not serious injuries”;
- Players who suffered a concussion were not at greater risk of suffering future concussions (2004). One independent doctor wrote that “[t]he article sends a message that it is acceptance to return players while still symptomatic, which contradicts literature published over the past twenty years suggesting that athletes be returned to play only after they are asymptomatic, and in some cases for seven days,”;
- “Players who are concussed and return to the same game have fewer initial signs and symptoms than those removed from play. Return to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.”
- Therefore “these players were at no increased risk” of subsequent concussions or prolonged symptoms such as memory loss, headaches, and disorientation.
- There was “no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects of multiple [MTBI] in NFL players.”
- NFL players did not show a decline in brain function after aconcussion;
- Neuropsychological testing was not helpful for evaluating MTBI in NFL players (in a paper written by Dr. Lovell, who developed the imPACT test);
- were no ill effects among those who had three (3) or more concussions, or who took hits to the head that sidelined them for a week or more;
- No NFL player experienced the second-impact syndrome or cumulative encephalopathy from repeat concussions;”
This was the information available to the Robinson family; a family that enjoyed football and as such wanted their son to have every opportunity to enjoy and excel in the sport they all loved. And so, in 1995 at the age of 6, little Adrian started to play.
When he was only 11 years old, with just 4 years of football exposure, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and placed on medications to improve his concentration. He also struggled with depression and learning issues. By 2002 he was failing in school.
As he entered his early teens, Adrian began experiencing frequent headaches, jaw aches, and required regular dosages of Motrin. But no one understood the problems. How could they? At the time, the NFL and its partners were promoting sham research and lauding the safety of the game. No one even considered football as a culprit. How was a parent to know?
Adrian Jr. was a star player in high school, where he was known as a “ferocious defender, a player who could almost single-handedly change the outcome of a game.” A.D., as he was known was then was recruited to Temple University where he charged the gridiron from 2008 – 2011. In 2009 he was the Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year. Ivey DeJesus of Penn live recorded his coach’s recollections:
“Robinson jumped off the film, said Temple head coach Matt Rhule. He made everyone around him better. He never missed a practice. He set the record for most sacks in one season and led the conference one year in total number of sacks. Other players had to match his intensity or they were in trouble, Rhule said.”
As reported by Nicki Jhabvala in the Denver Post, Adrian signed with the Steelers in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. He was then traded to Philadelphia and waived a week later before Denver claimed him off waivers on Sept. 1, 2013. He was waived by Denver on Oct. 15 that season and went on to play for the Chargers and Redskins. In all, Adrian Robinson made 22 NFL appearances.
The Defendants in this lawsuit knew the dangers inherent to the violent collisions of football and as Adrian played at Temple and then went on to the NFL he was asked to sign numerous liability waivers regarding “assumed risks.” A few even mentioned concussions. None warned of CTE, depression or suicide.
Though Adrian’s emotions were sometimes on display via his Twitter account as he bounced around the NFL reports say that friends and family saw no red flags in his behavior. In April 2015 he signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Those close to him said that while he was disappointed in leaving the NFL, he was looking forward to going to Canada and still making decent money playing the game he loved. By this time he and his girlfriend had an infant daughter, and by all accounts Avery Marie was the apple of his eye. On May 12, 2015 he tweeted:
Summer and the laugh of my daughter make me believe in God. ??
— Adrian Robinson JR. (@CuatroTres) May 12, 2015
Four days later on May 16, 2015 he took his own life.
Via an obituary on PennLive:
“Anyone who heard Terri Robinson’s mournful wailing that morning at the church knows she is not ready to talk about her son’s death. Adrian Robinson Sr. twice agreed to sit down with PennLive. Twice he canceled at the last minute. He just isn’t ready to talk. . . The pastors remembered him as a quiet, respectful young man. The hulking giants who had played football with him at Temple University and the coaches who had mentored him since grade school took their place among the friends, teachers and classmates. Heartfelt tributes recalled him as a loving and generous-hearted young man.
Robinson should have been packing up to head to Canada, where in two weeks he was due to report for training with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a professional football team.
Instead, Robinson – “AD” as everyone called him – was laid out in an open casket adorned with red roses, flanked by his framed jerseys – Big 33, Harrisburg High School, Temple University and the Pittsburgh Steelers. A life extinguished at 25 had severed the promise of a journey about to unfold.”
It was shortly after his death that Adrian’s family first learned about CTE. They sent his brain to be studied at Boston University, and CTE was discovered on October 12, 2015.
It seems telling that while in most cases insurance companies deny coverage in the event of suicide, the policy covering Adrian Robinson Jr. did not.
Adrian left behind two parents and a younger brother who loved him, a devoted girlfriend, and a baby daughter who will never know her father. His grief-stricken parents would have made different decisions had they only known the truth. No settlement will ever replace their loved one, whose death could have been prevented if factual information had only been available to shed a light on his problems. Instead Adrian endured a far too brief tormented existence and grappled with the betrayal of his brain for almost his entire life – at least the over 18 years he spent of it playing football.
I’m including a PDF of the entire complaint with this article. It should be required reading for anyone who has an interest in football – especially a parent who is making a decision on whether or not their child should play. In it attorney Brad Sohn weaves a tale of intrigue, conspiracy, deception and manipulation that would rival a fiction best seller; if only it were. Instead it paints a revealing picture of the sport America has grown to love, and Adrian’s death a reflection of the cost.
*All quoted text unless otherwise designated comes directly from the complaint drafted by Brad Sohn for the estate of Adrian Robinson, Jr.
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Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.