Ray Easterling’s widow pushing for change in NFL

Note: This article originally published as a blog post on June 7, 2012

She tried to think back to life before her husband first started suffering from sleepless nights and depression, before the memory loss and the dementia, before the suicide.

“The first part of our marriage in Atlanta and Richmond, Ray was wonderful,” Mary Ann Easterling said Thursday. “He was the life of the party. There was always an excuse to get up in the morning. Then when the insomnia and the depression hit, it was like the light went off. The switch was flicked. He no longer enjoyed being around the family. He no longer enjoyed doing the things he always enjoyed.”

It has been seven weeks since former Falcons safety Ray Easterling, 62, was found dead in his Richmond home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The suicide came eight months after the first in a flurry of concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL, a list that has grown to 86 suits, approximately 2,308 former players and 3,400 plaintiffs (including family members).

Easterling’s name was at the top of that initial suit. It follows that, in death, he has become the face for possible change in the NFL.

A master complaint was filed Thursday morning in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania. The expected administrative move consolidates the cases in hopes of streamlining the litigation process, a complex paper chase expected to last at least several months.

Two of the plaintiffs were on a conference call Thursday: Easterling’s widow, Mary Ann, and former running back Kevin Turner, who played for Philadelphia and New England and also suffers from ALS.

Turner has arranged to have his brain and spinal cord donated to science when he dies. He said he is not trying to “bring down” the NFL and even would support his sons playing pro football. But he believes the league “turned a blind eye to concussions and the cumulative effect of those. Ten years after retirement, I thought I had just turned into a loser over night. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”

For 20 years, Mary Ann Easterling dealt with her husband’s mood swings, forgetfulness and anger issues. She said it wasn’t until five years ago when she made a “neurological” connection to the symptoms.

“His memory started to go,” she said. “He couldn’t organize anything. … He would forget where he put things. He was always late to appointments. He lost control of his hands. Then he was diagnosed with dementia.”

You will hear several more stories like this in the coming months. The NFL has long denied knowledge of covering up evidence of long-term effects of concussions. But in the court of public opinion, this will not be an easy battle to win, and my guess is commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners know that.

In the 88-page master complaint, plaintiffs are seeking, “a declaration of liability, injunctive relief, medical monitoring, and financial compensation for the long-term chronic injuries, financial losses, expenses, and intangible losses suffered by the Plaintiffs and Plaintiffs’ Spouses as a result of the Defendants’ intentional tortious misconduct, including fraud, and intentional misrepresentation and negligence.”

The suit charges, among other things, that the NFL, “was aware of the evidence and the risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries virtually at its inception, but deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information …”

The NFL has denied knowledge of covering up any evidence of long-term effects of concussions.

Mary Ann Easterling and Turner are pushing for a greater awareness of the effects of concussions and support for players and their families. They also want tighter restrictions on those who suffer head injuries during their careers.

Turner recalled a game when he got knocked unconscious: “I came to on the sideline and asked [a teammate], ‘Are we in Green Bay or Philadelphia?’ If you can’t tell the difference between Lambeau Field and [Veterans Stadium], you’re in trouble. I sat out for 10 or 15 minutes, then I went back in.”

Mary Ann said “home life was peaceful” for the early years of their marriage. She talked about meeting her husband at Bible study. She spoke a little longer, then choked up and the conference call went silent for several seconds, stopped and started again twice.

“I’m concerned about former players who have symptoms and those who will have symptoms,” she said, later. “Their wives and their families should know that help and hope will be available to them.”

Not all stories end as tragically as Easterling’s, but the tragic ones often become the impetus for change.

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