The everlasting discussion over a new Vikings stadium has delved into politics, financing and geography. Let me throw morality into the mix too.
There’s a good moral argument for why Minnesota should not toss several hundred million dollars of taxpayer money into a new football stadium, as the NFL and the Vikings’ owners have requested.
While the NFL expertly earns billions of dollars a year, the league and its owners have dropped the ball when it comes to protecting their players from debilitating injuries, particularly brain injuries, and they have failed to take care of those players after they retire.
Until the league and its owners do more to fix this dereliction, Minnesotans are morally justified in blocking their access to our state coffers.
The facts about football and brain injuries are startling. In 2009, the NFL released a study showing that NFL retirees in their 30s and 40s are 19 times more likely than other men of the same age to suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s or other brain-related illnesses.
Behind these stats are personal stories that can hit close to home.
Some of you may remember Fred McNeill, a star linebacker for the Vikings in the 1970s and 1980s. Last year, McNeill was the subject of a feature in GQ magazine. The article reported how McNeill retired from the NFL, went to law school, and began a successful career as an attorney in Minnesota.
Then, in the mid-1990s, his memory started failing. His brain became so addled with dementia that he lost his law-firm job and eventually the family filed for bankruptcy. His marriage fell apart around that time too.
The world of NFL retirees is filled with anecdotes like this one, many of them even more tragic.
Some say that the NFL and its owners have not done anything wrong. As a legal matter, they are probably right.
Hundreds of former players who feel wronged by the NFL have filed lawsuits arguing that the league knew about the risks of long-term brain injuries years ago, but it concealed this information from players and did nothing to prevent these injuries.
Players seek new rules
The players are asking for new rules that would better protect players’ brains, as well as league-funded medical monitoring to screen and take care of retired players who show signs of brain injuries.
However, the players face a couple of big legal hurdles. They have to first convince a court that their claims belong in court and not before an arbitrator as required for labor disputes under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. They then have to show that the NFL breached its duty of care to the players under state tort law.
A few players could also file suit for their injuries in connection with the recent “bounty” scandal, which revealed that some teams offer bonuses for landing hard hits that knock specific opponents out of games.
However, these targeted players would also face an uphill legal battle.
They would have to prove that any concussions or other injuries resulted from bounty-motivated hits as opposed to routine tackles. They may also have to show that players do not implicitly accept the risk of bounties placed on their heads when they step onto the field — a difficult task given that scores of NFL players have suggested that bounties are rampant, even though the league technically prohibits them.
The bottom line is that the NFL and NFL owners have a very good shot at avoiding legal liability for the injuries caused by the game’s violence.
A responsibility to respond
But legal responsibility and moral responsibility are not the same thing. Surely the NFL and its owners have a moral responsibility to respond to this new evidence of brain injuries and premeditated violence by better protecting its players and improving medical care for its brain-damaged retirees.
Until the NFL and its owners accede to the former players’ reasonable requests for new safety rules and medical monitoring, there is a good argument that Minnesota should not contribute hundreds of millions of our taxpayer dollars to build a stadium that will provide the main stage for tragic brain diseases to take hold for the next generation of NFL players.
If we decide to fund the stadium anyway, then we have to accept some moral responsibility for the future Fred McNeills.
If thinking about this moral responsibility makes us feel too uncomfortable, then we should let our elected officials know that we would rather not pay for that new stadium after all.
Jason Marisam is a visiting assistant professor at Hamline University School of Law.
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