Report: National Football League paid concussed players $2 million while denying link between football and concussions

(David Goldman/AP file photo)

For many years, the National Football League denied the existence of a direct link between playing football and brain damage.

But a new report produced jointly by PBS and ESPN claims that the league paid players who suffered concussions as early as 1999.

According to the report, the NFL’s retirement board gave disability payments to at least three players after concluding that their brain injuries were caused by playing football. Those payments, spread across the late 1990s and early 2000s, totaled at least $2 million.

That information was uncovered in a 1999 letter from the NFL's Retirement Board to Bob Fitzsimmons, a lawyer who represented former Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs center Mike Webster when he made a disability claim that year. The board concluded that the brain damage which Webster and other players suffered came as a result of playing football.  

Publication of that letter could prove pivotal in a lawsuit brought by nearly 4,000 former NFL players against the league which claims the NFL has been covering up the effects of football on the human brain. The suit has been filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and is being heard here in Philadelphia.

Though Fitzsimmons is not directly involved in that lawsuit, in the PBS/ESPN report he called the letter a "smoking gun." 

"It’s pretty devastating evidence," he said. "If the NFL takes the position that they didn’t know or weren’t armed with evidence that concussions can cause total disability - permanent disability, permanent brain injury ... that evidence [from 1999] trumps anything they say.”