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Today’s rookies, tomorrow’s plaintiffs?

Cy Smith is not planning to watch much – if any – of the NFL Draft, which I believe will end sometime in May. But there is a chance some of these rookies could become Smith’s clients when their playing days are over.

Smith has represented numerous retired players seeking additional compensation from the NFL’s pension system, which he and others believe pays less than it should for disabilities caused by on-field injuries. Smith most famously represented the family of Hall of Fame Steelers’ center Mike Webster, which received a $1.5 million verdict in 2005. Last year, Smith settled a case on behalf of two former players, and he has several more cases at their earliest stages.

Perhaps the greatest danger facing players is head and brain injuries. Smith said research has shown that anyone who plays major college football and then pro football is at “serious” risk for repetitive concussion syndrome; oftentimes it’s not the biggest hit that causes the most damage but the accumulation of blows to the head. (For more on concussions, read Malcolm Gladwell’s story from the New Yorker.)

“It’s not a system of chance,” Smith said. “It’s predictable based on the way the game is played.”

The NFL last year recognized for the first time the long-term effects of concussions. The league has also taken steps to curb head injuries, including coming down harder on a player whose tackle or hit involves contact with another player’s head.

Smith said the NFL should be commended for taking steps to protect the players but that it might not be enough simply because of the nature of football.

“A lot may be inherent,” Smith said. “If that’s true, and we’re willing to have the game played in the way it has historically been played, we have to make sure the players are fairly compensated if they are injured.”