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Report: NFL retirement board linked ex-players' brain damage to football

The NFL's retirement board concluded that Mike Webster suffered brain damage from playing football. (Mike Powell/Getty Images)

The NFL’s retirement board awarded disability payments to former players after ruling that football caused their brain injuries at the same time the league's medical experts denied any link between the sport and long-term brain damage, according to a report by Frontline and ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

The board paid at least $2 million in disability benefits to the players in the late 1990s and 2000s, documents obtained in a joint investigation by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and FRONTLINE show. The approvals were outlined in previously unpublished documents and medical records related to the 1999 disability claim of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

The board’s conclusion that Webster and other players suffered brain damage from playing in the NFL could be critical evidence in an expanding lawsuit against the league filed in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylania. The lawsuit, which involves nearly 4,000 former players, alleges that the NFL for years denied the risks of long-term brain damage and “propagated its own industry funded and falsified research to support its position.”

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello emphasized in an email that the retirement board is independent, and that its decisions “are not made by the NFL or by the NFL Players Association.”

The seven-member NFL retirement board is composed of three owner representatives, three player representatives, and a non-voting representative of the NFL commissioner.

Bob Fitzsimmons, a Wheeling, W.Va., lawyer who represented Webster in his disability case and is co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute, described the retirement board’s conclusions as “the proverbial smoking gun.” “It’s pretty devastating evidence,” said Fitzsimmons, who is not part of the lawsuit against the NFL. “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 — in 1999, that evidence trumps anything they say.”

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