Jovan Belcher lawsuit shows concussion deal didn't end NFL's problems

The mother of Jovan Belcher is suing the Kansas City Chiefs, alleging that her son's 2012 murder-suicide was the result of concussions overlooked by the team.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, seen here in 2010, killed himself and his girlfriend in 2012. His body was exhumed this summer so that his brain could be examined for signs of a degenerative condition linked to repeated concussions.

A new lawsuit brought by the mother of former Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher points to fresh vulnerabilities for the National Football League and its clubs on the issue of concussions, despite the $765 million settlement with some 4,500 former players reached in August.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Mr. Belcher's murder-suicide on Dec. 1, 2012, in which he killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide in front of team officials in the parking lot of the Chiefs' training facility, was the result of brain trauma undiagnosed by the team.

Saying that the young linebacker “unknowingly sacrificed his brain,” the lawsuit claims that Belcher's acts were “uncharacteristic of the loving father, son, teammate and advocate for victims of domestic violence that [the Chiefs] hired in 2009.”

The NFL had hoped that the federal class-action suit settled last year would defuse legal challenges from players claiming lingering health issues from concussions. But the Belcher suit directly targets the Chiefs, not the league. Moreover, it was filed in a local court, where the "sentiments of community" could play to the plaintiff's advantage, says Marc Edelman, a sports law expert at the Zicklin School of Business at the City University of New York’s Baruch College.

In fact, Belcher's lawsuit is one of more than dozen brought in state court by ex-Chiefs players targeting the club. Along with a new lawsuit brought in federal court by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton, who appears to be rejecting the NFL's settlement, the Belcher lawsuit suggests that the NFL, and its individual teams, continue to have major legal exposure on this issue of concussions.

Mr. Edelman says a growing number of players who claim the league failed to protect them from concussions have opted out of the class-action lawsuit, saying the NFL is pinching pennies while sweeping the problem under the carpet. Going to state court is another new front.

“Bringing the case against the Chiefs creates a stronger argument that the case is different from the class action, that it should be heard in Kansas courts, and arguably as a matter to be decided at state court rather than going to federal court,” Edelman says.

So far, the team has not commented on the lawsuit brought by Cheryl Shepherd, Belcher's mother. The guardians of Belcher’s surviving infant daughter, Zoey, are expected to file a similar lawsuit, and the two will then be merged, lawyers for the plaintiffs told The Kansas City Star.

It won’t be easy for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to tease facts out of an emotional case involving a mother trying to prove her son wasn’t a killer, especially given that no doctor had ever diagnosed Belcher with concussion symptoms.

A lot more facts need to come out “to actually prove that the Chiefs were accomplices in ignoring some of Belcher’s alleged concussions or ignoring their responsibilities to his wellbeing,” writes Yael Abouhhalkah, in the Star. “Belcher’s brutal acts do not make him a sympathetic figure, even in light of the horrible way” team officials and the NFL “did not take seriously enough players’ reports of head injuries and concussions.”

The family has to prove an unusual case, too. Several former players, including the popular Junior Seau, have committed suicide in recent years. But they injured no one but themselves.

“The distinction in the Belcher case as opposed to the others is that Belcher’s family will have to show not just that he suffered from a syndrome as a result of concussions, but also show a direct link between the syndrome … and his conduct on that fateful day,” says Edelman. “If we look at the pattern of depression and suicide that has been seen in retired NFL players … one can make the argument that Belcher’s behavior fit into that pattern.”

The family allowed medical professionals to exhume Belcher’s body two weeks ago to look for forensic evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That’s a post-concussion condition that brain researchers have associated with memory loss, aggression, dementia, and impaired judgment.

The lawsuit describes at least some of those symptoms, and how they “caused or contributed to cause [Belcher] to become insane.”

Plaintiffs will also likely point to the fact that the age of players apparently struggling with brain trauma has inched lower. Belcher was in his mid-20s, while Paul Oliver, a former San Diego Chargers player who killed himself in September in his Marietta, Ga., home, was 29.

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