The National Football League has settled the lawsuits against it by the retired players who claim it misled them about the risks of the head injuries they suffered in its employ. The preponderance of journalistic opinion is that the deal is a big win for the league.
The plaintiffs in the suit—some 4,500 of them—are to split $765 million. That seems like a very large sum until you divide it by the number of teams in the league—32—and the 20-year period over which it will be paid. Although payment will be front-loaded, with half the money to be distributed during the first three years, each team’s average annual payout will come to about $1.2 million, which is about what it spends for Ben Gay and Ace bandages.
When you note that the NFL’s revenue last season was about $10 billion, and the figure is expected to rise steeply in the years immediately ahead, the conclusion that it made out like a bandit seems inescapable.
And as the TV pitchmen say—Wait! There’s more! The settlement covers all ex-players, not only those who signed up as plaintiffs, so if one of them develops neurological symptoms years down the road—a not-uncommon occurrence with head injuries—he’ll have to share from the existing pot. Current and future players aren’t included, but they are parties to labor-contract provisions that will subject their claims to arbitration, which typically is less generous to plaintiffs than litigation.
The NFL got off without having to apologize or admit fault, things that are dear to the stony hearts of corporate lawyers. Additionally, the settlement saved it the considerable legal costs trials would have entailed and spared it from having to produce for cross-examination its dubious experts who until recently were telling the players and the rest of the world that there was no proven link between playing football and ailments like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia, even though studies to the contrary have existed for more than 30 years. Again, rack up a “W” for the Big Team in Suits.
So why did the players agree to such a deal? Because many of the afflicted retirees are broke and hurting, unable to wait out the years that litigation would have taken and justifiably leery about their prospects of proving in court that their illnesses stemmed from injuries they sustained as professionals, not as high-schoolers or collegians.
The “broke” part pertains mostly to ex-NFL bit-parters who never made much money in the game, but it’s notable that the plaintiffs’ list also included such recent-year stars as Bruce Smith, Tony Dorsett, Art Monk, Harry Carson, Leroy Butler, Fred Taylor, Andre Reed and Jim McMahon, whose medical and care requirements eventually could strain even their once-ample bank accounts. Perhaps they and others looked at the head-injury-related suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters and decided that if help didn’t come soon it might be too late.
Still, the belief that the NFL got off cheap may be premature. Yeah, the league admitted no guilt, but the Latin phrase “res ipsa loquitur,” meaning “the thing speaks for itself,” seems to apply, with 765 million reasons to back it up. In paying the settlement, the league ratified the idea that playing football has serious potential health consequences. The action takes the sport out of the category of a healthful exercise that might be appropriate at the school as well as the adult level and ranks it with auto racing and downhill skiing as a daredevil pursuit that should be undertaken only with full appreciation of its risks.
A similar recognition is inherent in the recent changes the league has made to prevent head injuries and better treat ones that occur. While laudable, they also underline the fact that something dangerous is going on between the sidelines, which the evidence of our senses confirms every Sunday.
What’s the chance of incurring a debilitating neurological injury at age 50 after, say, 10 or 12 years of playing organized football—1%, 5%, 20%? How about after four or eight years in the sport? We don’t know now but the data is out there and one day it will be tabulated definitively. If the results don’t deter the players themselves—young athletes are strong and cocky, and think that injuries are things that happen to other people—it might make an impression on the parents who have to approve their participation in schools and colleges.
These parents might note that young, developing brains are more susceptible to trauma than the more-mature ones of the NFL behemoths. They also might heed some recent research that concludes that an individual needn’t have sustained a “big bang” head blow resulting in a verifiable concussion to suffer lasting neurological damage—that the numerous, smaller “dings” he shrugs off in practice or games can have a cumulative affect that can amount to about the same thing.
You love football, I love football, and the players and their moms and pops love football, but maybe something similar will happen to perceptions about the game. It may take a while but if it does the NFL won’t be celebrating its “victory.”