Judge: NFL, Players To Settle Concussion Lawsuits

Aug 29, 2013
Originally published on August 29, 2013 3:34 pm

The NFL and more than 4,500 former players want to resolve concussion-related lawsuits with a $765 million settlement that would fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation and medical research, a federal judge said Thursday.

The plaintiffs include at least 10 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett. They also include Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the family of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.

Many former players with neurological conditions believe their problems stem from on-field concussions. The lawsuits accused the league of hiding known risks of concussions for decades to return players to games and protect its image.

The NFL has denied any wrongdoing and has insisted that safety has always been a top priority.

Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia announced the proposed settlement Thursday after months of court-ordered mediation. She still must approve it at a later date.

The settlement likely means the NFL won’t have to disclose internal files about what it knew, when, about concussion-linked brain problems. Lawyers had been eager to learn, for instance, about the workings of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which was led for more than a decade by a rheumatologist.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

And what's being called a historic dramatic decision, the NFL has reached a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players who say they're suffering medical problems because of football-related concussions. The players accused the NFL of hiding the risks of concussions. The settlement will pay for their medical benefits, compensation for injuries, medical research and legal costs.

Derek Thompson is the business editor at The Atlantic. He's been following this story. And, Derek, we're just parsing all of this today. But overall, how big a deal is this?

DEREK THOMPSON: Right. As you said, the news - and this is just breaking - is that the NFL and more than 4,500 former players reached this rather historic $765 million settlement to resolve a suit where the players basically said the NFL wasn't forthcoming about the known risks of on-field behavior. And, you know, there's this is one amazing fact that the head of the NFL's concussion related study program was a rheumatologist, so not exactly the kind of person that you would expect to be leading this sort of thing.

But, you know, people look at this $765 million settlement, and they say, how big is this relative to the NFL? And, you know, the NFL is the most popular and lucrative sport in America. It made $9 billion last year and $1 billion in operating profit. So, you know, you could say, on the one hand, yes, this is what the players deserve. On the other hand, relative to the NFL's size and largesse, it's less than a full year of NFL profits.

YOUNG: Now, NBC's sports has been writing on it. They say $765 million, a lot of money but one that the NFL can pay because there were some predictions that concussion litigation would bankrupt the league.

THOMPSON: Right. I mean, at the end of the day, right, there's no telling, you know, if you sort of count up all of the life insurance plans and all these players that have died and their deaths have been partially related to concussion-related symptoms, and all of the medical costs and legal costs of even, you know, going to court for these suits, right, it could easily add up into the billions of dollars. And people were predicting that the NFL's total liabilities could number in the billions. So in that respect, you could say that the NFL is lucky, and you could also say the NFL is lucky because it doesn't necessarily have to admit that it did anything wrong now. They can pay the settlement out of court and then that's it.

YOUNG: Yeah. And, in fact, the judge in the case did a question and answer. There's still a lot of questions about how this will be determined, how the money is given out. Doctors will be involved, fund administrators. But when asked, is this an acknowledgment that the NFL hid information, the judge said no.

THOMPSON: No, this is not. This is the beauty of mediations. The beauty of the settlement for the NFL is that they can pay up. They can pay up before the season starts. They can pay up before PBS and "Frontline" air their famous and now somewhat infamous documentary "League of Denial." And they can pay up without saying that we did anything wrong. And they can, in their owns minds and perhaps as well in the minds of fans, erase this issue somewhat for the foreseeable future.

YOUNG: Well, people are just weighing in the - on social media. Some saying, good, it's about time. Others saying, this is going to drive up the cost of beer at stadiums. But a big question I don't know that we resolve it is, what about the future? What happens to players who signed up now and then have an injury in the future? Do we know?

THOMPSON: I don't know.


THOMPSON: No, I don't know right now. And, you know, the question to be raised is, does this change the way that football is played? You know, this is a settlement, but does it change the way the teams' coach - that coaches advise people to tackle, that players who tackle and are tackled, you know, use their bodies and be forthright with their trainers about their injuries? Does it change the culture of the NFL from the professional league, all the way down to Pee Wee football when some scientists say some of these concussion-related symptoms are actually starting?

You know, those are the questions that we don't know, and that's where it's not one settlement that's going to change the way that football is played because it is the most popular sport. And you do have people saying, oh, God, is beer prices going to go up? You know, there has to be a cultural shift.

YOUNG: Yeah. Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic. Thanks so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

YOUNG: OK. When we come back, are we heading for a new cold war with Russia over Syria? That's in a minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.