By the end, the battle scars of ‘Iron’ Mike Webster ran from head to toe. Cracks stretched along his feet, so he tried to close them with duct tape.
When his teeth began to fall out, the Pittsburgh Steelers icon superglued them back into place. Before the heart attack that killed him, Webster would use a taser to soothe his pain. And to sleep.
Iron Mike played in the NFL between 1974 and 1990, winning four Super Bowls for a team who took pride in their toughness.
Iron Mike Webster played in the NFL between 1974 and 1990, winning four Super Bowls
The price of that glory would not become apparent until Webster died aged just 50 — the NFL are counting the cost to this day.
Only eight months earlier, the former England striker Jeff Astle, 59, choked to death unaware he had even been a footballer. Both had been plagued by dementia; both became the first men in their sport to be diagnosed with degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Webster’s death prompted decades of wrangling over whether American football could cause long-term brain injury.
It culminated in an historic concussion settlement, now worth £611million, after more than 4,500 former players took the NFL to court. They claimed they were misled over the risks of long-term brain injury.
The NFL’s trial-by-science proved anything but straightforward however. It was 1997 when Webster decided to sue the NFL. The league doctor agreed that his injuries were American football-related and, in a statement unearthed years later, the NFL acknowledged that the sport could cause brain disease.
But what followed was delay, denial and the discrediting of medical experts.
Webster died aged just 50. Only eight months earlier, former England striker Jeff Astle died
The recent deaths of Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles have shone further light on English football’s dementia crisis. The authorities stand accused of sweeping the issue under the carpet. Sportsmail columnist Chris Sutton — whose father Mike lives with dementia — believes PFA chief Gordon Taylor must shoulder some responsibility.
So could football chiefs be sued by former players too?
A landmark study last year revealed that former players are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia than the general population.
The research also found a fivefold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a fourfold increase in motor neurone disease and a twofold increase in Parkinson’s.
Doctors did not establish a direct link between heading and dementia but the findings still rocked football. Astle’s family have been campaigning for dementia in footballers to be recognised as an ‘industrial disease’ caused by heading footballs.
Webster’s death led to row over whether American football could cause long-term brain injury
Steven Baylis of Lime Solicitors, a specialist in industrial and brain injuries, would not be surprised to see this crisis end up in court. Only then could we answer: when should football have begun to do more?
‘With the NFL, they had known for quite some time about the damaging effects of repeated concussive injuries yet chose to try and dispute the validity of the medical evidence,’ he said. ‘Until a claim is submitted you won’t have access or disclosure about the medical evidence that’s been considered and what records the clubs keep.’
The first suggestion the NFL would take head injuries more seriously came in 1994, when they set up the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. A year later, the FA were warned of a possible link with dementia and that more research was needed.
But it took until 2019 for Dr Willie Stewart’s research to be done. It was eventually funded by the FA and PFA. Astle’s daughter Dawn lamented the ‘wasted years’ and claimed the authorities had to be ‘shamed’ into action.
In industrial disease cases such as asbestos, Baylis explains, courts look for a ‘reasonable’ date of knowledge ‘at what point should things have been acted upon’.
But neurodegenerative issues such as dementia pose a particular dilemma. ‘They can happen spontaneously without a history of sport and concussive injuries — it can just develop,’ Baylis says.
‘That makes it more difficult, because there is an obvious get-out clause for clubs to say “Well this just occurs naturally”. But this three-and-a-half-fold increase, at some point they probably were fixed with a greater duty of care. What we don’t know, of course, is when a court would fix the clubs with that knowledge.
‘But it’s almost two decades and there has been a strong indication that all was not well.
‘It may be that the damage was more serious 30 or 40 years ago. However, we don’t know that and it may be that there are still considerations now that clubs should have been acting on more quickly than they have.’
By the 2013 NFL lawsuit, 45 of the 46 brains of former players examined showed signs of CTE. The NFL still denied misleading players and the settlement meant they admitted no guilt or acknowledged any causal link between the sport and brain damage. Exactly what they knew — and when — was never made public.