By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A lawsuit brought by thousands of former NFL players against the league for allegedly denying any link of gridiron play to long-term brain damage may benefit from information in an investigative report on Friday.
The National Football League's retirement board awarded disability payments to at least three former players in the late 1990s and 2000s after concluding that football caused their brain injuries, according to a joint probe by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and the PBS "Frontline" show.
The payments of at least $2 million were made as the league's top medical experts were consistently denying any link between the sport and long-term brain damage, the report said, citing documents obtained in the investigation.
Approvals were outlined in previously unpublished documents and medical records related to the 1999 disability claim of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster and two other unnamed players, ESPN said in an article on its website (espn.com).
In response, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said decisions on disability were made by the board, not by the National Football League or the NFL Players Association.
"The report showed that we've had a system in place with the union for many years to address this issue on a case-by-case basis," Aiello wrote in an e-mail response to Reuters.
"The disability plan is part of the collective bargaining agreement with the players. All decisions are made by the plan's board, not by the NFL or Players Association. The voting members of the board are comprised of three representatives of the NFL and three of the NFLPA," he said.
After retirement, Webster, who played primarily for the Pittsburgh Steelers, suffered from amnesia, dementia and depression besides bone and muscular pain.
After his death at age 50 in 2002, Webster was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease.
The lawsuit filed this year by nearly 4,000 former NFL players was filed in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleges the NFL "propagated its own industry-funded and falsified research to support its position."
The NFL retirement board determined in 1999 that repeated blows to the head had left Webster, who played primarily with the Pittsburgh Steelers, "totally and permanently" disabled.
Bob Fitzsimmons, a 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," Fitzsimmons, who is not part of the lawsuit against the NFL, told the investigative reporters.
The NFL, which has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, has denied that it concealed information about the risks of chronic brain injury and says it has updated its policies as concussion research has evolved.
(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by ......)