The National Football League agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by more than 4,500 retirees, some of whom claim to have advanced dementia or other health problems, as well as the families of players who have died from what they claimed were the long-terms effects of head trauma.
The settlement, announced Thursday, will be seen as a victory for the league, which has nearly $10 billion in annual revenue and faced the possibility of billions of dollars in liability payments and a discovery phase that could have proved damaging if the case had moved forward.
The league has changed its rules to make the game safer and modified its medical protocols for concussions as mounting scientific evidence in recent years linked head trauma suffered on the field to long-term cognitive damage. Among the terms of the agreement is that the settlement is not to be regarded as an admission of guilt by the league.
"The settlement seems low considering the number of claimants and the severity of their conditions, but it also shows the uphill climb in proving the league was responsible for the players' injuries," said Michael LeRoy, who teaches labor law at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "The league is keenly sensitive to its public image. It changes the conversation and really lets the air out of the publicity balloon."
Highlights of the settlement
NFL would pay $765 million plus legal costs, but admits no wrongdoing.
Individual awards would be capped at $5 million for players suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Individual awards would be capped at $4 million for deaths from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Individual awards would be capped at $3 million for players suffering from dementia.
Money would go toward medical exams and concussion-related compensation for NFL retirees and their families, and $10 million toward medical research.
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia must approve the settlement.
More than 200 former Steelers -- including Dermontti Dawson, Louis Lipps, John "Frenchy" Fuqua, Chris Hoke and Jeff Hartings -- are plaintiffs in the cases, according to a database compiled by The Washington Times.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and club president Art Rooney II declined to comment.
Former Steelers offensive tackle Tunch Ilkin, who also was a player representative but was not involved in the lawsuit, said he was happy for the players who needed help.
"There are a lot of guys who have some serious post-concussion effects. What I'm happy for is that this thing was settled quickly and they'll be able to get the help they need. I really hope, as they do the payouts, they do that based on need," Mr. Ilkin said.
The case was seen by many as a possible reckoning for the NFL, which has been stigmatized in recent years by the revelations that dozens of former players were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease closely related to Alzheimer's disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated head trauma. While the settlement closes a legal case for the league, brain trauma among current and former players might continue to vex a sport that embraces violent collisions.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs were eager to reach a settlement because many of their clients have debilitating neurological problems that need attention. Without a deal, a legal remedy might have taken years, with no guarantee that the courts would rule in favor of the players.
"The big picture was we got immediate care to the retired players, and I think we accomplished that," said Christopher Seeger, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
"I've heard people say they could have got more," Mr. Ilkin said. "Look, you got to look at what's fair, what's a fair settlement for guys who are suffering from dementia due to their football experience, especially because we have a lot of guys who are hurting financially."
A court-appointed mediator helped the two sides reach the settlement; it now must be approved by Judge Anita B. Brody of U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
The settlement will include $675 million for players or the families of players who suffered cognitive injury. As much as $75 million will be set aside for baseline medical exams. A $10 million research fund will be established. Assuming Judge Brody signs off, the deal could take about 180 days for the players to start receiving compensation, Mr. Seeger said.
Mr. Seeger added that the players would not have to prove that their health issues were the result of head injuries suffered in the NFL. Compensation will be based solely on a player's age and years in the league, not the position he played or the number of concussions he might have suffered.
"This settlement helps players from years ago, whether they don't have medical insurance or don't have the means. Today's player is in a different boat," Mr. Ilkin said. "Today, the entire league is much more careful with guys, they're more conscious of the potential long-term implications of repetitive concussions. Today's player will benefit from the standpoint of 'let's error on the side of caution.' "
If the deal is approved, approximately half of the settlement amount will be paid over the next three years, with the balance issued over the next 17 years.
"This agreement lets us help those who need it most and continue our work to make the game safer for current and future players," Jeffrey Pash, the NFL's executive vice president, said.
"It's a good day, because we're getting help for those who need help," said Mark Rypien, the most valuable player of the 1992 Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins. "And a sad day, because we didn't get this done earlier to help guys in the past."
CTE was found in the brain of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters after his suicide in 2006. Since then, the disease has been found in nearly every former player whose brain was examined. (CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously.) Most notably, former NFL linebacker Junior Seau was found to have the disease after he committed suicide last year, and in 2011, Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears player, shot himself in the chest, saying in a note that he wanted his brain donated for research. Doctors determined that Duerson had CTE.
"On the eve of a new season, to put this litigation in the past, has to be the best news for the NFL," said Robert Boland, who teaches sports management at New York University.
The plaintiffs said the NFL took until 2010 to properly warn players about how concussions could affect their brain functions long after they had retired. They said that the league did so despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and that the league failed to regulate the sport in a manner that would prevent brain injuries. Many players said they suffered multiple concussions that were improperly diagnosed by team medical personnel.
"It's frustrating. Frustrating," said Tony Dorsett, a former running back with the Dallas Cowboys, who played at the University of Pittsburgh and Hopewell High School. "And to have a 10-year old daughter who says to her mother, 'Daddy can't do this because Daddy won't remember how to do it,' it's not a good feeling. I'm glad to see there's been ... acknowledgment that football has had something to do with a lot of the issues us players are going through right now."
The NFL denied that it deliberately misled players about head injuries and said that it relied on the best science available at the time to create its concussion policies. It argued that the collective bargaining agreements signed by the league and its players union should govern any disputes, not the courts.
Judge Brody was expected to rule on the league's motion to dismiss in July, three months after she heard oral arguments by the lawyers representing both sides. Instead, she appointed a mediator to work with the league and the plaintiffs to see if a settlement could be reached out of court. Mediators do not make binding rulings, but instead try to help the participants to narrow their differences.
The first concussion-related cases against the NFL and Riddell, the helmet manufacturer, were filed more than two years ago. To streamline adjudication, the cases were consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia a year ago. Riddell did not agree to take part in the settlement. The plaintiffs' lawyers will continue their case against the company.
The size of the NFL settlement could motivate other athletes to sue their leagues, including the NCAA. But those players might not get as far as the NFL retirees if they are unable to show that a league or governing body deliberately kept information about the dangers of head injuries from them.
"My whole thing through this whole thing is we lived our dreams, the players, and now our families live our nightmares," said Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure. "Let's help take care of the women and the kids who have to take care of their dads from this."
Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette and Associated Press contributed. First Published August 29, 2013 4:45 AM