Was NFL concussion settlement a win-win deal? Just about ...
Concussion agreement between NFL and 4,500 ex-players branded as hush money by some, but hopefully the good should outweigh the bad
The court-appointed mediator who brokered a proposed US$765 million deal between the National Football League and 4,500 former players characterised it as a "win-win". So did the league and the players' lead attorney.
But not everyone with skin in the game was convinced. At least one player suggested it was hush money well spent.
"I'm used to the NFL taking a hard-line approach as they have throughout the years with strikes and everything else," said former Pro Bowl lineman Lomas Brown, a plaintiff in the concussion-related lawsuits. "I'm curious how they came up with the figure and I've got a lot of questions, but I am happy that it's done."
Yet Brown couldn't help adding, "Any time the NFL acknowledges they are ready to settle something, it shows they knew they had some sort of negligence."
The nature of compromise is such that neither side gets everything they want. And the benefits proposed for former players are both considerable and desperately needed.
It won't restore lives already lost or ruined, nor heal broken minds and spirits - the toll the game extracted from some has been terrible and irreversible.
But it would provide help right away to generations of past players still suffering the effects of concussion-related injuries. It would also replace the uncertain outcome and cost of litigation with a step-by-step process overseen by independent doctors to assess the extent of those injuries and then cover the medical bills.
There's no way to minimise how important that is to those near the breaking point or beyond, and the families struggling to look after them.
"I am able to live my life the same way I was, but now - chances are I am 44 now, I won't make it to 50 or 60 - I have money now to put back for my children to go to college and for a little something to be there financially," said former NFL running back Kevin Turner, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease and was also a party to the lawsuit.
"It will give them the peace of mind to have the best quality of life they can have," Turner added, referring to other former players. "No longer have to make decisions regarding their health based on what they can afford, but based on what is the best treatment for them."
And as mediator Layn Phillips, a retired judge appointed by the US District Court in Philadelphia, noted in a statement released after the proposed deal was announced: "The alternative was for the two sides to spend the next 10 years and millions of dollars on litigation, which would have been great for lawyers, expert witnesses, trial consultants and others. But it would not do much for retired players and their families who are in need."
Yet it was Phillips' next sentence that may ultimately decide how good a deal this turns out to be: "This resolution allows the sides to join together, do something constructive, and build a better game for the future."
Like the players, the NFL will reap some important benefits. For one thing, the league can deny any wrongdoing and likely won't have to answer a welter of potentially damaging questions; for example, how a rheumatologist ended up in charge of its euphemistically named "Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee" for more than a decade.
The deal also ends the spectre of the commissioner, Roger Goodell and his league - just ahead of this season's kick-off, no less - callously battling in court the very players who made pro football wildly popular and profitable. And it finally puts real money where the NFL's mouth has been for years.
"Commissioner Goodell and every owner gave the legal team the same direction: Do the right thing for the game and for the men who played it," the league vice president, Jeff Pash, said.
"This is an important step that builds on the significant changes we've made in recent years to make the game safer, and we will continue our work to better the long-term health and well-being of NFL players."
Save the second half of that quote, and look at it again at the end of this season, and for a few seasons after that.
Because the $765m, even if the league paid it now in a lump sum, represents less than 10 per cent of the $9 billion-plus the NFL currently collects in revenues. Assuming the league grows only modestly year after year, by the time the settlement fund is closed sometime around 2025, the payout will be less than 1 per cent.
Until the settlement was proposed, it was impossible to have a candid discussion of how safe playing in the NFL can be. The league's insurers and lawyers made sure of that, at least as long as the lawsuit was hanging over their heads. On top of that, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players effectively heads off similar lawsuits in the future.
By capping the league's liability for the damages that concussions caused in the past, it frees the NFL to become a real partner in player-safety issues unhindered by any conflicts of interest. That was exactly what Phillips had in mind when the mediator called it a "win-win".
"The settlement means that the parties reached an agreement to put litigation behind them, get help to retired players who need it, and work proactively to support research and make the game safer. These," Phillips wrote, "are goals everyone can share."
IN A NUTSHELL
- NFL would pay US$765 million plus legal costs, but admits no wrongdoing.
- Individual awards would be capped at US$5 million for players suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
- Individual awards would be capped at US$4 million for deaths from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
- Individual awards would be capped at US$3 million for players suffering from dementia.
- Money would go toward medical exams and concussion-related compensation for NFL retirees and their families, and US$10 million toward medical research.