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Former MLS man sues for negligence; this could get real ugly

Aug 29, 2012, 1:01 PM EDT

Bryan Namoff

Former MLS Bryan Namoff is suing D.C. United (and therefore MLS), and this is not good news for anybody.

The Washington Post reported today a $12 million lawsuit filed against the MLS club and Tom Soehn, who coached the team in 2009 during the time in question.

Points to consider here as this one begins to wind through the legal system – slowly, I’m sure, since these things can take years to fully unfold.

  • This is a potential precedent setter. There are other, similar cases out there – some we know about and others we may not know about.
  • Soehn remains in MLS; he is now director of soccer operations for the Vancouver Whitecaps. So, who knows how this might affect him personally? Suffice to say, it will be an unpleasant distraction at very best, with depositions, potential legal fees, etc.
  • ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, who has done fantastic work in raising awareness of concussion-related problems in athletics and in MLS in particular, will surely have strong thoughts on this one. Whether he can share them all – that’s a delicate issue. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
  • Protocol for dealing with concussions and head injury is much more thoughtful today, but certainly was not always so thorough. Steven Goff’s Washington Post blog entry has more detail.

The last one is tough, personally.

I was at an MLS match a few years ago. A public relations person told me that a certain player was scratched from the lineup, still suffering from the effects of a concussion. He would not play.

Except that he was on the bench, which was odd – and that came as a big surprise to the person who discussed with me the player’s head injury from a previous match.

And in the second half, on that player trotted into the game.

I never got a full explanation of how that happened. Since it wasn’t a team I covered regularly, I never followed up aggressively. In my position at the time, that just wasn’t my job.

But I always wondered was I somehow remiss? Should I have asked more questions about that one?  The fact is, I was a freelance journalist then, and the economics work like this: if someone isn’t paying you to perform a certain task, you simply cannot devote lots of time going down potential rabbit holes.

And yet … I wonder to this day if I contributed somehow to a larger epidemic (or to that player’s potential personal health) by not pressing the issue.

When I see what Namoff is alleging, I wonder if I (and probably some other journalists) fumbled this one along the way. Goff’s story from The Post says Namoff alleges that he “suffered brain damage and cognitive, memory and sensory loss. He also has permanent headaches and fatigue, sleep problems and hypersensitivity to motion, the lawsuit says.”

  1. dfstell - Aug 29, 2012 at 1:25 PM

    This is pretty eye-opening. Everyone talks about how damaging these lawsuits could be to the NFL and I think there are some soccer fans who are almost gleeful at the potential damage to football as they see that increasing opportunities for soccer. BUT…as we see, soccer is not immune to this either. Not to mention that MLS is not in the financial position to weather a bunch of massive judgments.

  2. tylerbetts - Aug 29, 2012 at 2:02 PM

    I wonder what a guy like Chad Marshall thinks when he reads the details in this lawsuit. He’s struggled seriously with concussion syndromes, and continues to play, risking one more concussion and ending up raising his family with similar syndromes as listed at the end there.

    Financial risks to the league via lawsuit, yes. But I hope some of these guys remember they have lives and families after their pro career is over.

  3. wesbadia - Aug 29, 2012 at 2:17 PM

    A few things:

    1) MLS’s pseudo-franchise setup and single-entity structure opens the entire league (and every team in that league) to these situations. If DC is hit hard, you can guarantee that the other 18 teams will feel the shocks of these consequences. This is a big deal.

    2) To add to the “considerations”, how will DC’s the new ownership group respond and/or directly deal with this situation? They have deep pockets coming into the club, but are they generous enough to deal with a problem that happened long before their tenure began? Is this something that could easily be gobbled up by them and thus save the rest of the league from having to deal with the finances of it? If so, at what cost to the re-building DCU?

    3) A reminder that this happened at the same time that Twellman was trying to make a comeback from his 2008 neck injury that gave him his concussion. Twellman retired the following year. My point is that these things happened during a very uncertain time in the history of concussion awareness in professional sports. Since then (and any coach that has taken any USSF coaching certification courses can tell you) most organizations make this a priority, especially for young players.

    If this is looked at in the context of the overall “epidemic” of concussions in MLS, then I think the legal battle over how much the organizations involved would have known to prevent this, considering it was very early on in this journey. If anyone has anything to be worried about, I’d say it’s Tommy Soehn for having ultimately been the individual to have made the decision to put Namoff on the field.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.

    • joeyt360 - Aug 29, 2012 at 5:43 PM

      Legally, it really does the opposite of that. The LLC stands for ‘limited liability corporation’, and that’s exactly the sort of liability that it limits.

      • CaliforniaRedskins - Aug 29, 2012 at 6:34 PM

        LLC is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion. The LLC limits the liability that the owners have regarding their personal assets if the corporation goes into bankruptcy, which I don’t think anyone is expecting here at all.

      • wesbadia - Aug 30, 2012 at 8:35 AM

        CaliforniaRedskin is correct.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limited_liability_company

        LLC’s (C stands for company, btw) are designed to protect ownership interests due to financial strains. My scenario of Soehn bearing the brunt of this can still play out, and it’s due to the fact that the system is operated like one big LLC.

  4. east96st - Aug 29, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    The simple reality is it is just one man against the League and it is doomed to fail. That is why the NFL players brought a class action. One player can’t fight an entire league. MLS will stall and stall and Namoff’s lawyers will see their payoff getting smaller and smaller and will walk away. Such is the US legal system.

    As for the concussion issue, we know very little about the brain. What precious little we do know about concussions, and their long term effects today, is significantly more than we knew five years ago. Why are girls more susceptible to it in soccer than boys? Why can one person get five concussions and live a long, normal life and another get two and suffer as he ages? There’s speculation as to the reasons behind it, but the truth is we really do not know. But, since we do live a litigious society, concussion waivers are already becoming the norm and I expect helmets to become mandatory. The guys at Full90 will soon have more orders than they will know what to do with. Of course, that leads to the question, if all the players have to wear helmets, will the beneficial effects of the helmets go away because players will become more aggressive thinking the helmets protect them?

    As for Steve’s dilemma, I respect your empathy. But one freelance journalist does not a culture change make. I would be more than willing to bet significant money that the player in question demanded to play. “Take one for the team” is as much a part of soccer as it in football.

    • joeyt360 - Aug 29, 2012 at 5:46 PM

      I don’t know what to bet on, partially precisely because it wasn’t reported on. Even if the player did ask to go in, if that request was based on bad medical advice, he may have a claim.

      But no journalist can beat himself up too much about this, because he can look around and see no one else was covering it. Frankly, it probably took a player like Twellman, whose career we’ve seen and who’s been through it himself, to bring the issue the attention it needs. I don’t think we, the readership, would have responded to concussion stories had it not been for Taylow.

  5. CaliforniaRedskins - Aug 29, 2012 at 6:40 PM

    It’s definitely a delicate situation for MLS. The league doesn’t want to set the precedent of settling all of these cases and paying off the former players at the expense of reinvesting in the current on field product, but they also don’t want to be seen as the bully picking on the little guy either. I suspect that MLS is heading towards a disability type system that the NFL currently has in place for players like this.

    As for whether or not Namoff has a case, I think that given the lack of information available about concussions until recently and the fact that each player assumes a certain amount of risk inherent to the game they probably should be in good shape going forward.

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