NFL Concussion Settlement: Digging Into the Details

The overall cost to the National Football League of its landmark concussion settlement is turning out to be greater than the initial estimate: $914 million vs. $765 million. For individual injured former players, though, the important dollar figures are to be found in the fine print of the pact, which was originally announced last year.

On Monday, lawyers for thousands of NFL retirees presented a federal judge in Philadelphia with the proposed settlement details, seeking her required approval. Former courtroom foes, the league and the plaintiffs’ lawyers, are also lobbying in the court of public opinion. Attorneys for the retired players held a press conference Tuesday touting the settlement as the best way to get money swiftly to the worst-injured athletes. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, meanwhile, is scheduled to do a Q&A on Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where he will face questions about the adequacy of the financial package the league hopes will put to rest concerns about potential multibillion-dollar liability related to brain injuries.

Here are answers to some key questions about the settlement:

Why did the total amount increase, and how much are the lawyers pocketing?
In pacts resolving mass litigation, such as the concussion lawsuits filed on behalf of former players against the NFL, the precise settlement value is often difficult to pin down until years after the money actually begins to flow. That’s because it isn’t clear initially how many individuals will qualify for which damage levels under a settlement’s complicated terms. The current best estimates are that the NFL will provide $675 million over a period of years to compensate retirees with specified injuries. Another $75 million will go to medical tests, $10 million for educational programs, and $4 million for administration. If that’s not enough, the NFL agreed to pay an additional $37.5 million. The plaintiffs’ lawyers will receive $112.5 million, or about 12.3 percent of the total, a pretty standard cut for fronting litigation of this heft. The NFL’s defense lawyers will get paid, too, of course; their compensation isn’t part of the settlement deal.

So is that sufficient?
Hard to say. By definition, mass settlements represent wholesale justice, not remedies that satisfy each individual victim. One thing is for sure: While more than 18,000 living retired players could benefit, regardless of whether they filed claims, current and future athletes will not receive direct payments as a result of the pact. Since football remains a violent sport, and researchers are only beginning to understand the long-term effects of repetitive head collisions, it’s a very safe bet that thousands of additional pro athletes will walk away from the football field hurt but uncompensated—at least by this settlement. And then there’s the much larger pool of high school and college players. This problem is far from contained, let alone resolved.

If that’s the case, are former players being treated fairly?
Their lawyers say yes. “This is an extraordinary settlement for retired NFL players and their families—from those who suffer with severe neuro-cognitive illnesses today, to those who are currently healthy but fear they may develop symptoms decades into the future,” plaintiffs’ attorneys Chris Seeger and Sol Weiss said in a written statement. The NFL, a $10 billion-a-year business, “supports the plaintiffs’ motion,” a spokesman said. While the pact isn’t comprehensive in covering current and future injuries, it does offer at least some solace to thousands of retirees and their dependents. The lawsuits filed on the ex-players’ behalf faced daunting procedural hurdles, and victory in court was not guaranteed. Settlement means compromise—and that’s what this batch of retired athletes received.

What are the specifics?
Our cousins at Bloomberg News did a dandy job of breaking down some of the key numbers:

“Under the agreement, compensation will be based on a list of qualified injuries including neuro-cognitive impairment resulting in memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and death from a progressive disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, according to court filings. Players will be paid based on age and time in the league. For example, a player with one eligible season would get 70 percent less than someone who played more than four seasons in the league. …

Maximum settlement awards include $5 million for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease, $4 million for death with CTE and $3.5 million for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, according to court filings. Players suffering from moderate dementia could get as much as $3 million while those suffering from an early form of the disease would be capped at half that amount, according to the filings.”

There’s more to come. Former players can “opt out” of the settlement. Some have already filed separate lawsuits, saying they want more money and/or more accountability from the NFL. If the dissent spreads, it could threaten approval of the settlement or its long-term effectiveness. The issue of brain injury will haunt football as long as large men slam their helmeted heads into one another.

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