The Pro Football Concussion Report

A Fan's Look at Head Injuries and the Concussion Crisis in Football

The Boys of Covington

Good Wife Star and Husband
Julianna Margulies and husband, former Covington Lawyer Keith Lieberthal


They’ve never had two-a-days, and they don’t wear pads to work. They may have never suffered a concussion and it’s more likely that a knee injury came from a ski trip in Aspen than on a football field in Green Bay. But these men* have more impact on the health and well-being of NFL players than Ray Lewis or Dick Butkus ever did. The blue-chip attorneys at the oldest and largest law firm in Washington D.C., Covington and Burling LLP have been working with NFL team owners since at least 1960 when the formation of the AFL first threatened their 13 team empire.Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue left Covington in 1989 after NFL team owners chose him to succeed Pete Rozelle. Tagliabue returned to the powerful D.C law firm and lobby group upon leaving the NFL in 2006. Succeeding Tagliabue as the NFL’s point man at Covington was Jeff Pash, Harvard graduate and the current General Counsel of the NFL. Pash’s first job as an attorney was working at Covington under Tagliabue. The current NFL star attorney at Covington would likely be Covington partner Gregg Levy. Levy played a pivital role in the 2011 CBA negotiations as well as defending the NFL from a handful of recent antitrust lawsuits. In addition, other Covington attorneys have moved on to powerful positions.  The current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Lanny Breuer and Dan Suleiman all have previously worked at Covington.

( An unusual detail of the controversial Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit is that this particular benefit which would essentially be awarded to retirees with non-reversible brain damage automatically terminates at age 55. Seems like that young age cutoff would dramatically reduce its effectiveness as a benefit)

Since then, Covington and Burling lawyers have helped the NFL fight antitrust lawsuits, negotiate union agreements, defend player lawsuits and formulate strategy when threatened with government intervention. They have advised the team owners and shaped contracts and collective bargaining agreements. All of the players retirement and health benefits have been carefully vetted and calculated by some of the brightest  legal minds in the world. It is said that Covington employment recruiters will only interview the top 1% of graduating law students and from only the finest law schools in the country. Only the best and the brightest earn the big money from one of the world’s top law firms.

Tuned into the business dealings of the U.S. government since its inception in 1919, Covington and Burling established itself in D.C. to take advantage of the expansion of big government under Woodrow Wilson during World War 1. J. Harry Covington, A Georgetown University professor and District of Columbia Supreme Court Justice recognized that complex war contracts, the recently passed federal income tax, and increased government regulations presented an opportunity to open a private and profitable law practice. The firm worked on some of the most intellectually demanding legal cases. Early on, they assisted the country of Norway in successfully suing the United States for its World War 1 decision to build  its own ships rather than use the previously agreed upon Christiana Group of Norwegian Shipowners. Through the years, Covington would represent and advise controversial clients such as duPont, Halliburton, Chiquita Brands and Phillip Morris in big cases sometimes involving charges of harmful death and even terrorism.

Their experience tackling complex litigation and zeal for aggressive representation led to a long and profitable relationship with the cigarette industry.  Allegedly, since at least 1968, lawyers at Covington worked hands on with industry funded scientists  to understand the intricacies of tar and nicotine testing and the process of determining the Federal Trade Commission’s standard of acceptable exposure levels. According to the United States Department of Justice’s Final Opinion in 2006, it was determined that Covington’s John Rupp met with a tobacco industry-sponsored scientific committee “almost monthly to propose, review, and manage scientific projects.” That’s the unusual, dedicated type of confident leadership Covington could offer their clients. Additionally, Covington helped the industry form “expert” panels and they prepared talking points that enabled “the entire global industry to espouse a common position immediately, an essential element in quickly responding to local government and media.” The 2006 Final Opinion demonstrates that by using law firms to manage, read and approve the funded scientific research the industry was attempting to hide potentially damaging information from being “discovered” in case of future litigation by shrouding the work under the umbrella of attorney-client privilege.  At one point, the law firms even formed a wholly-owned corporation “for the purposes of litigation” that housed “nearly complete coverage of the world medical literature on tobacco and health available at each user location with essentially state of art information search and retrieval capability.” The goal being that even the “bad news” that may be concluded by scientists could later be hidden under attorney-client privilege. Interestingly, in 2009, only two years after the DOJ’s lengthy final opinion about the tobacco industry and its advising law firms, President Obama appointed Covington and Burling partner Eric Holder to his current powerful position as the Attorney General and head the United States Department of Justice.

Covington and Burling also attempted to keep tobacco industry oversight in the hands of government agencies such as the FDA and out of the hands of judges and juries. In 2012, Federal Judge Gladys Kessler finally ordered the tobacco companies to admit that they had “deliberately deceived the American public about the health effects of smoking.”

The firm’s fifty year close relationship with the tobacco industry is carefully left out of the firm history as described on the Covington and Burling website.

But the tobacco business was hardly the law firm’s only source of income. The firm’s practice is very diversified. Last year the law firm was paid over $12 million just for lobbying on behalf of its clients. Lobbying efforts included a little of everything – for oil companies, banks, pharmaceutical companies, military contractors, countries and of course, the NFL.

Covington’s advice and expertise has played a pivotal role in the language of the Collective Bargaining Agreements between the NFL team owners and the players union, the NFLPA. Within the CBA are the details of the players health and retirement benefits. Although retirement benefits affect a much larger group of individuals than the agreements impacting active players, the NFLPA and its attorneys seem to be focused on the money issues affecting rookies and active players.  This gives an opportunity for the team owners to reduce their financial commitment to retirees while offering a carrot to the active players. Recently a judge ruled that active players have no fiduciary responsibility to look after the interests of retired players while negotiating the CBA. Although a larger class than the active players, and certainly one that lasts many years longer, the retired players offer little competition when lined up against the bright attorneys working for the team owners.

Related Story: Paul Tagliabue: The Lawyer Behind Elliot Pellman

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