The National Hockey League playoffs are underway, and the League is experiencing unprecedented media coverage as a result of the $2 billion dollar contract it signed with NBC last spring. But with newfound popularity, comes newfound criticism, and the tensions of playoff hockey have only exacerbated the onslaught from both players and pundits. Most of the commentary has centered on a perceived lack of consistency in officiating and enforcement, and of course, at the center of all of this is the League's concussion problem. Last week, the League office drew heat after Nashville Predator's Defenseman Shea Weber was not suspended for deliberately slamming the head of Detroit Red Wings Forward Henrik Zetterberg into the glass. Perhaps heeding these criticisms, the League responded this weekend with a three-game suspension for Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers, after he elbowed the Ottawa Senators' Daniel Alfredson, causing a concussion. Some commended the NHL for taking a tougher stance with the Hagelin suspension, but the repercussions handed down have been widely inconsistent. Given that the League has been beset by concussion concerns with its biggest stars such as Sidney Crosby, and in light of the brewing litigation against the NFL by its former players, the NHL would do well to establish a consistent and strict policy with respect to blows to the head.
Meanwhile in the NFL, yet another concussion related lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of four former players in Atlanta. What makes this suit distinct from the 58 suits that have already been filed, however, is that this complaint is the first to make specific reference to "bounty-gate." The lawsuit references the scandal as just another example of the League's indolence in dealing with the realities of head trauma. Specifically, the complaint alleges that the NFL "explicitly relied on violence" and neglected to educate players on the dangers of concussions.
Linking the bounty scandal to the ongoing concussion litigation was inevitable, but it is unlikely to be a game changer from a legal standpoint. From a public relations perspective, allegations related to bounties certainly creates a buzz, but ultimately, the scandal will offer little in the way of proving the League's negligence. First, there is little proof, at least at this point, that the League was aware of bounties occurring, and even less evidence suggesting that the problem is pervasive. Additionally, unless the individual plaintiffs claim to have been directly affected by the scheme, the causal link is missing. In fact, the four plaintiffs in this new suit merely state that the bounty system is indicative of a culture of violence. But professional football is inherently violent, and without a showing that the League's policy in regards to bounty systems rendered the sport unreasonably dangerous, the allegations referencing the bounty system will do little more than draw more attention to the issue. Regardless of the potency of these allegations, look for more suits to be filed, and expect those complaints to mirror this one.
Thank you to Brian Konkel, Law Clerk at SmithAmundsen for his work on this piece.