The NFL Tackles The Greatest Threat To Its Survival

by Patrick Appel

NFL Head Injuries

Yesterday, the NFL settled the head injuries lawsuit brought against it by thousands of former players. Jonathan Mahler thinks the settlement is puny:

It was inevitable. Of course, the National Football League wasn’t going to enter into a lengthy discovery process in which it would have to tell the world what it knew — and when — about the dangers of playing professional football. Of course, the NFL wasn’t going to risk a multibillion-dollar verdict. Of course, the NFL wasn’t going to go into another season with this massive lawsuit — featuring at least 10 members of the Hall of Fame as plaintiffs — still hanging over its head.
What is surprising is the paltry size of the settlement that the NFL has gotten away with. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Christopher Seeger, has said that avoiding litigation will allow players and families in need to get urgent medical care sooner rather than later. Fair enough. But it’s still a sweetheart deal for the NFL: just $765 million, paid out over 20 years. To put that figure into context, the NFL’s 2012 revenues totaled $9.5 billion. Better yet, the league’s estimated revenue for 2025, when it will still be handing out loose change to the families of players who committed suicide after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are projected at $25 billion.

Ben McGrath makes related points:

The rough per-capita payout—given that all of the N.F.L.’s current retirees are eligible for compensation, and that it is estimated that there could be as many as twenty thousand of them—could come to less than forty thousand dollars, to be disbursed over a period of a couple decades.

(And not all of the money is actually going to compensation—$75 million will be spent to pay for medical exams, and $10 million is earmarked for research and education. The $675 million that the players will receive won’t be distributed equally; some will get more, up to a maximum of $5 million—others, presumably, much less.) No, it’s not “chump change,” but neither is it much of a hit to the bottom line of the world’s most profitable sports league, an organization that was being sued by almost a quarter of its former athletes. The rights to televise “Monday Night Football” alone are worth one and a half billion dollars a year to the N.F.L., or about twice the size of the settlement. The league’s annual revenues approach ten billion dollars. What’s more, in settling early, the league escaped discovery and depositions that might have revealed more about what it knew, and when. The terms are explicitly agnostic on the subject of whether the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football; the N.F.L. admits no liability. What concussion crisis?

Sean Gregory explains why the NFL’s players accepted the settlement:

“[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.

Daniel Engber wishes more money had gone to research:

In the past few years, the NFL has disbursed more than $100 million on concussion research, and the Player’s Association has been spending money, too. Still, it’s troubling that as part of its final deal with plaintiffs, the league set aside just $10 million more for purposes of “research and education.” We’re talking about barely more than 1 percent of the total pot, and not all of it will go towards doing science. According to the settlement, that fund will also pay for outreach projects such as one promoting “safety initiatives in youth football.” In light of what we know—and don’t know—about concussions, these are almost guaranteed to be a waste of money. You can’t promote “safety” in football, youth or otherwise, until you understand—scientifically—how dangerous it really is.

And Travis Waldron wonders what the NFL will do next:

While it’s a small step forward, larger questions remain about the future of the game. The NFL has taken significant actions in recent years to help reduce concussions and brain injuries in its game, changing rules, requiring evaluations from independent doctors, and improving testing and treatment procedures. It has couched much of that in gibberish as it refused to explicitly acknowledge the dangers of concussions, but perhaps the absence of major litigation will now allow it to speak frankly about the need to make its game safer — and about the need to improve safety at the college, high school, and youth levels too.

The Dish’s thread on pro-sports head injuries is here.

(Chart from YouGov)