Former Portland Timbers soccer player Eddie Johnson’s lawsuit is the latest development in the ever-evolving arena of concussion lawsuits by amateur and professional athletes. This is the second concussion suit brought by a player against an MLS club; Bryan Namoff sued DC United in 2012 and that litigation is ongoing.
Johnson filed his Complaint in Oregon state court against the team and its medical staff, alleging that his career ended prematurely because they negligently allowed him to play while he was still suffering from concussion-related symptoms. Johnson describes a simple set of facts, which begins with his August 3, 2011 concussion during pre-game warm-ups. Then on August 14, 2011 he sustained another concussion during a game. This second concussion was a season-ender as the defendants determined that Johnson could not safely return to play for the remainder of the season. The defendants allegedly allowed him to return for the MLS 2012 pre-season despite that he was still experiencing concussion symptoms. They allegedly failed to properly evaluate or monitor him before letting him return, and they did not give him the return to play protocol.
During pre-season Johnson allegedly suffered further head injury from either heading the ball or other physical exertion, resulting in the premature end of his professional soccer career. He claims that he suffers from headaches, memory impairment, cognitive deficits, balance problems, blurry vision, dizziness, anxiety, and depression. He seeks $9.9 million dollars in damages.
Presumably Johnson’s allegations regarding “the return to play protocol” are a reference to the MLS’ concussion protocol, which the league unveiled prior to the start of the 2011 season. The protocol mandates that any player with a suspected concussion has to be removed from play immediately and evaluated by the team’s medical staff. Every team has a designated consulting neuropsychologist. Once a player is symptom free both physically and cognitively, the player is evaluated using neuropsychological testing to ensure that the player is in fact cognitively fine. If the player passes the tests, the player can begin low-level aerobic activity and gradually build up his exertion. The system is set up to avoid the problem of players hiding their symptoms or faking their way through cognitive tests.
The Timbers issued a press release in response to Johnson’s suit, which states: “While we cannot comment publicly on any specific active legal proceeding, we can definitively state that the Portland Timbers follow all MLS player health-related protocol and have done so since we joined the league. Additionally, we approach head injuries with extra caution and err on the side of conservatism above and beyond the official protocol when dealing with them. We have an expert staff of physicians and trainers and we stand by them and their evaluations.”
Johnson’s – and Namoff’s – lawsuits are not the type that would snowball into a massive class action because, unlike the NFL concussion litigation, the soccer players’ allegations pertain to discrete instances where they were – but allegedly shouldn’t have been – cleared to play. They will both have to prove their own particular set of facts in order to prevail.
But soccer – the world’s most popular sport and increasingly popular in the US – may have a widespread legal issue lurking in its future centered around whether heading causes brain injury. Soccer players head balls traveling upwards of 50 mph thousands upon thousands of times over the course of their careers. Research on this topic is in its infancy but early results suggest that the cumulative effect of heading may result in long-term cognitive problems, thus scientists are calling for more research.