Notable Native: Liz Nicholson Sullivan talks need for NFL concussion awareness


Courtesy of Liz Nicholson Sullivan

Because of her husband’s experiences playing professional football, Liz Nicholson Sullivan has advocated for awareness, solutions and accountability from professional sports leagues regarding the lasting effects of repetitive concussions.

By Metro Reporter

Liz Nicholson Sullivan, wife of retired professional football player Gerry Sullivan, who played for the Cleveland Browns 1974–1981, knows from personal experience the issues faced by retired athletes who suffered brain injuries as a result of repetitive concussions during their career.

As the finance director of the Senate Democratic Victory Fund, and as an ambassador for the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund and the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Nicholson has advocated for awareness, solutions and accountability from the NFL regarding head injuries through, open-forums, events, educational programs and charity events .

The Chronicle spoke with Nicholson about her experiences, issues and the problems retired athletes affected by concussions face.

THE CHRONICLE: How has your family been affected by football-related concussions?

LIZ NICHOLSON SULLIVAN: My husband suffers from the after-effects of playing professional football because he has frontal lobe dementia. He was diagnosed with that at the age of 52. I got involved because he was acting very strangely early on in our life together. My husband was so sick that we received disability from the NFL in 2005. This was for total and permanent disability from cognitive [impairment] and orthopedic injury as a result of professional football league play.

My husband and a handful of others were receiving disability from the NFL for cognitive injury as the NFL was saying that football cannot cause cognitive or head injuries. Well, if it cannot cause head injuries, why are you paying my husband and some others disability payment for that very thing?

What are some of problems faced byretired athletes who have suffered with concussions?

In my own personal experience, when you group all the issues and problems together, they are various, but the majority have similar symptoms. After my husband retired at 32, he started experiencing—in his late 30s—the typical symptoms of cognitive injury. They are very scary. They are horrific rage, aggression, debilitating depression, a lot of confusion and a lack of impulse control. It’s not a pleasant thing to witness.

He became so symptomatic he ended up losing his job because he was scaring his coworkers and doing inappropriate things.  He lacked impulse control. These guys have so much frontal lobe damage they cannot stop a very reactive behavior.

My husband is a very bright man. Now, he is just a shell of his former self because of his professional football career.

How do these problems affect the players’ families?

Thankfully [because of our circumstances], we did not have children. What happens to so many of these NFL families is they become fractured because of the illness of the player. That player [who is suffering from cognitive brain injuries] is so frightening to the wife and the children that a lot of divorces take place. 

Fortunately, I was able to stick around with Gerry because I realized he cannot help his illness, but if I had small children in the house, I do not think I could have done that.

What can be done to support these athletes?

The fact is there are thousands of retired professional football players, and the NFL is really lacking in what they have done for their so-called family. [Former Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints coach], Mike Ditka, and his Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund—a nonprofit organizationthat takes care of all of these former players who the NFL let slip through the cracks—is one group that helps retired players. 

Players were homeless, broke and destitute. It is hard for people to believe this, but yes, this is what happens to a lot of these retired athletes because they were brain damaged. The Gridiron Greats stepped in and helped these retired athletes, and I want to thank them for that.

Should the NFL be held responsible for the effects of playing professional football?

We’ve seen [the effects of concussions]—and yes, they need to be held accountable for the fact that during the years when my husband and others played, the NFL had been in denial. They used to tell guys like my husband, “Getting a concussion is like hitting your funny bone,” or “Get back in the game, or else.” It is the culture of the NFL. 

The fault lies with the owners because for them, the bottom line was all about money. [The football players] were treated like commodity. The word “concussion” was never used during my husband’s playing days. According to Gerry, they called it getting your bell rung or getting dinged.

Fortunately, we did get disability in 2005, one of only a handful of people the NFL awarded it to. I do not know what we did differently. However, they said in the disability documents: “Gerry Sullivan has total and permanent disability as a result of serious orthostatic and cognitive injuries as a result of league play.” How can say that and at the same time say to the media, “No, no, no. Football doesn’t cause head injuries.”

I do not know how [the owners] live with themselves sometimes, knowing the condition of the players as they lean back at night with their healthy brains and bodies intact. How can they live with themselves knowing they treated people this way? Absolutely, I believe they should be held accountable. They have foisted these enormous sick men on women and children to take care of—that’s not right.