Akbar Gbajabiamila, an analyst on "NFL Fantasy Live," played defensive end for three NFL teams from 2003 to 2007. In his "Inside Out" column, he offers a player's perspective on topical events around the league.
Recent controversial comments by Deion Sanders, my NFL Network colleague, have many former NFL players in a rage. Some, like wide receiver Joe Horn, have spoken publicly. Many others are speaking privately among themselves.
"The game is a safe game; the equipment is better; I don't buy all these guys coming back with these concussions. I'm not buying all of that. Half these guys are trying to make money off the deal. That's real talk. That's really how it is. I wish they'd be honest and tell the truth, because it's keeping kids away from our game."
There are roughly 12,000 living former NFL players. About 4,000 of them are currently suing the league over head injuries, according to a Washington Times database. In other words, one out of every three former players is actively seeking a piece of the NFL's yearly $9.5 billion pie, which they helped create.
The men who represented and helped build the iconic NFL shield feel Sanders' statement undermined their current and eroding health conditions. I've spoken to and communicated with dozens of them. For an iconic figure to verbalize discontent against the lawsuits made these men feel as if they'd been betrayed by a member of their own fraternity. Deion isn't the first player to take this position, but he is the most recognizable one, and he has a large audience.
Why have so many players joined lawsuits against the NFL?
In order to answer this question, you have to understand what the lawsuits are about. The NFL is being accused of failing to provide information linking football-related head injuries to brain damage, permanent memory loss and other long-term health issues related to concussions.
The number of plaintiffs in these highly publicized lawsuits has grown exponentially, because former players are spreading the news by word of mouth, and attorneys are chasing players to sign up. Some attorneys are operating elaborate recruiting schemes, which involve infiltrating an athlete's circle of agents and managers to persuade them to attend quasi-seminars.
What you find are attorneys holding informative meetings inside hotel conference rooms, presenting their case, why they are able to take on big defendants, how much players could be entitled to, and the occupational effects that could compromise a lifestyle.
I attended two of these meetings before joining NFL.com and NFL Network, and they were emotionally intense. The presentation left me feeling insecure about my medical health, scared, angry and hopeful that there will be some sort of financial compensation to assist with any developing conditions.
At one of these meetings, one player -- a Super Bowl winner whom I had played against -- stood up and spoke of his struggles at the age of 29. Frankly, I was shocked, and you couldn't find a dry eye in the room. We were all thinking, 'This could be me.'
During the two presentations I attended, the attorneys referenced cases like the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which resulted in seven tobacco companies paying states an estimated $206 billion in damages and agreeing to fund a $1.5 billion anti-smoking campaign.
They claimed the NFL misinformed players about the severity of concussions, and they informed players of the statute of limitations with regard to bringing a cause of action for injury. They also showed 3-D images of brains affected by concussions.
After hearing all of that, after hearing the emotional stories, you feel that not joining the lawsuit would be a mistake, that it would mean you'd be against the cause. It's the same type of pressure you get from a multi-level marketing meeting; in this case, it stresses former players to act quickly.
There are a multitude of players who are currently hurting, and there's also a whole host of players who have yet to feel the cumulative effects of brain trauma.
On the other hand, I also believe there are some former players who have no business being involved in this lawsuit and just want to get paid.
In my opinion, the qualification shouldn't be measured by the amount of years played but by the levels and type of trauma suffered on impact. It's hard to quantify how many guys fall in the category of "faking it" without understanding the type of guys in this suit. In my experience, these high-pressure meetings typically include four types of players:
Player 1: Has mild-to-serious brain trauma from his playing days, and his lifestyle has been seriously compromised, leading to permanent disability.
Player 2: Shows undeniable signs of trauma, suffering from insomnia, short-term memory loss, concentration problems and even depression, but can carry on with normal living to the best of his ability. Is unaware if his condition is progressive.
Player 3: Struggles to recognize any indicator because of the football culture to ignore pain and ailing symptoms; has been dismissive toward his condition; appears to be "normal," and now wants to understand more about his future.
Player 4: Is a healthy player who feels entitled because he played in the NFL, thinks the league owes him, and sees this as an opportunity to get paid.
After speaking with Deion late last week, it was clear to me his intent is to preserve the game of football and to keep players honest. Having pretenders involved in the lawsuits only dilutes the attention from people affected by brain trauma, and it also stagnates the growth of the game.
I personally know players in the lawsuits who were only on practice squads and have never taken a snap on game day in the NFL. Of the more than 4,000 players in the Washington Times database, 387 never played a regular-season game in the NFL, and 57 are either former punters or kickers.
The point is to be truthful and not hurtful to the game.