Out Of Bounds: The Wives Of Football Players With CTE

Sep 3, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Repeated concussions have led to an epidemic in the NFL.

KEN BELSON: You're about to meet the real-life doctor who discovered that insidious disease found in the brains of athletes who suffered repeated blows to the head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's going to run it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

BELSON: And who paid a terrible price.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Keep in mind, Pat White is a running back. And helmet-to-helmet hits are just part of tackling a ball carrier.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week on Out Of Bounds, living with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. The disease can leave former players severely disabled and their wives and caretakers with little to no support from the NFL. So some of these spouses have banded together on Facebook to get advice and help. New York Times reporter Ken Belson reported on the group. And that's how he met Alison Owens. Her husband, Terry, played for the Chargers and died in 2012 from CTE. Alison and Ken, welcome to the program.

ALISON OWENS: Thank you.

BELSON: Thanks for having me on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alison, I want to start with you. Can you tell us your story and the story of your husband?

OWENS: Yes. Like you said, my husband, Terry, played for the Chargers in the '60s and the '70s. So it was back when they really didn't have a lot of the protection. About 30 years after his football career, he just started having funny signs, where he couldn't remember things, got confused with the keyboard and the cell phone. And it just continued to increase. And it eventually turned into a full-blown dementia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was it like having to take care of him with CTE?

OWENS: Oh, the last two months were horrible. He was down hard. Up until about the last 60 days, he was - you know, he still was crazy but he was happy. And then the last 60 days, after you've had a catheter and a bed sore, then infections take over. So I was giving him IVs three or four times a day, just doing everything I could to try to keep him as pain-free as possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It must've taken an enormous toll on you. Were you able to speak to anyone about it back then?

OWENS: Well, back then I had a group of five or six women that had been player advocates. And they helped me emotionally. But they didn't really have any advice or guidance that they could give me in making decisions on how to take care of him, which - that's what the Facebook page is all about. Now we can help other women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, tell me a little bit about that. I understand that you're quite active on the page. And you give advice to other women there. Tell me some of the things that are discussed on the site.

OWENS: Well, the site was only opened in April of last year. And now we've got, like, over 2,500 members. And there's about 75 members being added every month. We had a woman in the community I was living in whose husband had played in the NFL. And he committed suicide. And so I was able to get the word to her to make sure his brain was harvested and able to connect her to the Facebook page. So all of a sudden, she had 2,600 women helping her. Someone took over planning a meal schedule for her and her family. Someone arranged getting gifts, cards and finances for her family. So people just popped in and helped. I just did one little part of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Seems like a valuable contribution, though. Ken, I'd like to talk to you a little bit about the NFL. It's faced thousands of concussion lawsuits after CTE was discovered. We should mention that Alison has added her name to one of those lawsuits. Remind us why these lawsuits, Ken, were charged and where they stand now.

BELSON: Sure. Starting around 2010 to 2011, individual players popped up all over the country, suing the NFL. And the basic crux of it was a fraud claim that the NFL knew that concussions were potentially causing long-term brain disease and held that back from the players. It may have been at the end of 2011 that I first wrote about these cases. But they all got consolidated into federal court in Philadelphia. And then the NFL surprised a lot of people by actually settling. It was the first time the league implicitly admitted that there was a link by putting up hundreds of millions of dollars to pay the retired players. It was, in a way, admitting fault.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ken, can you just spell out for us what the wives and caretakers have demanded from the NFL in compensation and what they may have gotten so far?

BELSON: Sure. So when the settlement was finally reached, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million over 65 years for players affected with ALS, Parkinson's, death from CTE, dementia. The judge, at that point, agreed with people who said that that would not be enough. So the NFL actually agreed to uncap the damages, which means the top amount any one player can receive or their wives is $5 million. And that's for players who died with ALS and are younger than 45 years old. It sort of shows the power, number one, of the sheer numbers of players who took part - and second of all, how powerful the issue is and what amazingly bad publicity it is for the NFL.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alison, has this taken over, you know, your life - being able to give advice and forming this community? Has it been important to you after your husband passed away?

OWENS: Yes. It's really kind of been healing for me. You know, it's kind of like when one woman heals herself, she's able to, you know, help those that came before and those that came after. And speaking out and helping others has been a healing process for me. There's so many other women out there that have gone through the same thing I have. It's not just me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alison Owens was married to late Chargers player Terry. And Ken Belson is a reporter at The New York Times. Thank you both so very much.

OWENS: Thank you.

BELSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.