After two months of mediation, the NFL and the 4,500-plus retired football players suing the league over its handling of concussions reached a $765 million settlement that offers all retired players access to baseline medical assessments, and a $675 million fund available to pay monetary awards to players, or their families, who have cognitive impairments, dementia, Alzheimers or ALS. Players with ALS can receive up to $5 million. Families of players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after their deaths can receive up to $4 million. Assuming Senior U.S. District Court judge Anita Brody approves the deal, the NFL will pay about half the settlement amount over three years, and the balance over 17 years. The NFL must also pay the plaintiff’s legal fees: according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated, they are “likely to be at least $200 million.”
For a league that generates over $9 billion annually, the number seems small. “Big loss for the players now and the future! Estimated NFL revenue by 2025 = $27 billion,” Kevin Mawae, a former center with the Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans who has served as president of the NFL players’ union, wrote on Twitter. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to hurt the NFL,” says Karon Riley, an ex-linebacker who played in the NFL from 2001-2004. “They’re just swatting away a fly, and get to move on.”
Riley, however, is generally happy with the deal. “Oatmeal,” he says, “is better than no meal.”
Paul Anderson, a lawyer who runs the nflconcussionlitigation.com blog, and who has been highly critical of the NFL in the past, calls the deal “tremendously fair.” The players faced a huge hurdle to victory: proving that head trauma from playing NFL football is responsible for their impairments. “That’s what ultimately kept this settlement out of the billions,” says Anderson. A concussion isn’t like a broken arm, a clear outcome of one disastrous play. Concussions often go unreported. It’s difficult for players to disprove that head trauma from, say, high school or college football triggered their impairment. Even if, in the discovery phase of this case, evidence revealed that the NFL clearly tried to cover up its concussion crisis, the scientific challenge would still remain.
“[The NFL] is going to say, ‘did your brain damage come from your college hits?'” says Christopher Seeger, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “From your pro hits? Do you have a documented history of concussion? Can you prove you were concussed? Can you prove concussions even caused your neurological problem?” In this settlement, players just have to show signs of impairment in order to receive a payout. “They don’t have to prove any of those things,” says Seeger.
For the NFL, the settlement — even if it’s a small amount of money in the long run — still reflects badly on the league’s management of head trauma. Sure, the NFL is not admitting any liability, or saying that pro football caused brain injuries. “But everybody knows you don’t throw $765 million at a problem that doesn’t exist,” says former New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams offensive lineman Kyle Turley, a plaintiff in the suit.
After an initial chat with his lawyer, Turley says he’s happy with the deal. But no financial reward can recoup the price he paid for playing football. After a career littered with head hits, Turley–who played for eight seasons between 1998 and 2007 –says he has contemplated suicide. “I don’t know, really, what is in store for me down the road, because I’ve already shown so many damn signs already that this has affected me,” Turley says. He says he’s taking medication, Depakote, which treats manic episodes. “That is something highly recommended that I don’t get off of,” says Turley.
So football’s fundamental problem remains, no matter the value of this settlement. You can teach tackling technique that takes the head out of the game. But when two players are running across a field at high-speed, collisions, and concussions, are unavoidable. “You can’t even imagine how fast the strike zone changes,” says Riley. Football is a scary sport. Nothing fixes that.