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The Jahvid Best Lawsuit Could be Worth Millions, But Will it Change Pro Football?

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With more than a dozen counts of negligence, fraud, and liability, and more than 400 points on everything from the NFL's concussion research to the safety of its equipment, Jahvid Best's new 86-page civil suit is gargantuan. As was reported earlier this week, the ex-Detroit Lions star is going to court with the NFL and helmet maker Riddell.

How much could he make?

The case against the NFL
His case against the NFL boils down to the fact that, according to him, the league: (a) failed to provide education about concussions' dangerous side-effects, (b) allowed him to enter the draft despite two concussions his final year of college, and (c) allowed him to remain playing after a third concussion in 2011. 

There's nothing new about the first of these claims. Last fall, 4,000-plus former players settled with the NFL for $765 million on the basis they were deceived about the true, long-term dangers of concussions. Still pending final approval, that amount is expected to be split between the NFL's total retiree base. With this figure as a guide, Best could receive at least $40,000 from this portion of his suit.

How the NFL draft fits in
Best also alleges he shouldn't have even been a participant in the 2010 NFL draft, saying, the league "allowed [him] to be drafted and play despite his history of brain injury." 

The set for the 2010 NFL draft. Image via Marianne O'Leary, Flickr.

Before being picked by the Lions with that year's 30th pick, Best suffered two concussions in his final year at University of California, Berkeley. The second, a particularly scary, high-flying hit that went viral on YouTube, knocked him out of the 2009 season. Could the NFL have prevented him from being drafted? It's unclear.

More than a few studies have shown that players with two concussions are more likely to suffer a third, as well as a higher risk of long-term problems like memory loss and headaches. In fact, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, from as far back as 1952, suggested that football players should be given a "three-strike rule" with concussions, quitting the sport after they exceed that limit. 

By that definition, Best was already on the border before the draft. But if his lawyers can establish that the NFL should have adopted a three-strike rule, it would suggest Best should have never been medically cleared after his third concussion in the 2011 preseason. If that were the case, his career-ending fourth concussion, which occurred just two months later, might have never happened.

Because of its relative novelty, there's no precedent that suggests how much Best could be awarded. His contract with the Lions averaged almost $2 million a year, so assuming the average career length of a first-round draft pick is nine years, Best will theoretically miss out on an additional $12 million in salary. A 20% level of responsibility levied on the NFL, then, would net Best $2.4 million.

How Riddell fits in
Best is also suing Riddell because its Revolution helmet, which he wore in the NFL, had allegedly been misleadingly marketed as a concussion-risk reducer, something many researchers reject.

Again, this is nothing new. Thousands of former NFL players have pending litigation against Riddell, and its $3.1 million liability in a high school lawsuit suggests the biggest portion of Best's award could come from the company.

Cause and effect
No matter who wins this case, it may change how the NFL draft is structured. The league has never had a rule preventing previously concussed players from being taken, but at least one -- in the 2012 draft, talented Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu who had three concussions in college -- has gone undrafted because of the risk.

A couple years ago, in fact, NFL consultant Dr. Robert Cantu told Sports Illustrated a steadfast rule barring previously concussed players from the draft "definitely could be something in the future, but ... concrete data isn't there right now [to warrant] something like that." 

By that, Cantu meant "imaging studies" will be necessary to use as a final piece of the puzzle, and that's where Riddell can actually help.

The final piece of the puzzle
Ironically, concussion lawsuits could both damn Riddell's Revolution helmet while giving life to other aspects of its business. The company's Head Impact Telemetry System, known as HITS, can detect concussion severity and serve as an "early warning system," according to those familiar with the matter.

As Cantu alludes to above, it's possible that in the future, HITS could be used to determine NFL draft eligibility. For example, the league could mandate all collegiate players wear a HITS-equipped helmet, which cost about $1,500 each, after their first concussion to maintain draft status. With over 500 college athletes eligible for the draft every year, and typically hundreds more hopefuls, this is one way Riddell can begin to offset its mounting legal costs.

Finding a happy medium
In its entirety, Best's civil suit could return him over $5 million. Although his actions are villainized by some who see them as selfish, some of the damage could have been avoided if the NFL adopted a policy that was suggested over 60 years ago. 

Remember, Best was actually kept on the Lions roster long enough to qualify for a pension, so it's clear the professionals who knew him best -- his coaching staff -- were sympathetic to his ongoing problems.

On the other hand, there's the argument that any athlete who decides to enter the NFL draft is acknowledging the risk of injury. In college, it was Best who suited up just one week after suffering his first concussion, and it was his decision to leap six feet in the air that led to his second.

He certainly wasn't complaining that the NFL gave him draft status when he signed a five-year, $9.8 million deal with the Lions as a rookie, nor was he mad after he racked up over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his first season. 

At the very best, Jahvid Best's lawsuit will lead to meaningful changes in the way the NFL treats college players with a history of concussions. At the very worst, it could open a Pandora's box of issues where every player could sue for the fact that they were drafted. Finding a medium between the two is something that's on the shoulders of the court.

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Jake Mann

Jake Mann covers sports, economics and politics for the Motley Fool.

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