A week before the regular season begins, the NFL and many of its former and current players have reached a tentative, $765 million settlement that would resolve concussion- related lawsuits and fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation and medical research, a federal judge said Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
“This is a historic agreement, one that will make sure that former NFL players who need and deserve compensation will receive it, and that will promote safety for players at all levels of football,” retired Judge Layne Phillips, the court-appointed mediator, wrote in a statement released Thursday morning by the Alternative Dispute Resolution Center. “Rather than litigate literally thousands of complex individual claims over many years, the parties have reached an agreement that, if approved, will provide relief and support where it is needed at a time when it is most needed.”
The plaintiffs include some premier NFL retired players, including Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year and donated his brain to researchers who concluded he had trauma associated with blows to the head.
The growing litigation spawned changes in NFL game rules starting in 2010 that attempted to eliminate the most violent hits, especially those to the head and neck. The changes have been adopted by the NCAA as well as high school and junior football organizations. Players have complained that the changes are altering a game violent by definition.
However, 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.
In the settlement, the NFL admits to no wrong-doing, and 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.
In court arguments in April, NFL lawyer Paul Clement asked Brody to dismiss the lawsuits and send them to arbitration under terms of the players’ contract. He said that individual teams bear the chief responsibility for health and safety under the collective bargaining agreement, along with the players’ union and the players themselves.
Players lawyer David Frederick accused the league of concealing for decades studies linking concussions to neurological problems.
Brody planned to rule in July, then delayed her ruling and ordered the two sides to meet to decide which plaintiffs, if any, had the right to sue. She also issued a gag order, so it has been unclear in recent weeks about progress toward a settlement.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other concussed athletes have been diagnosed after their deaths with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
About one-third of the league’s 12,000 former players have joined the litigation since 2011. They include a few hundred “gap” players, who played during years when there was no labor contract in place, and were therefore considered likely to win the right to sue.
Given the NFL’s gross annual revenues approaching $10 billion, the settlement figure seems affordable relative to the consequences of a verdict against the league in a trial.
The concussion issue flared anew last week when the NFL was said to have pressured its broadcast partner, ESPN, to pull out of a project with the “Frontline” program on PBS called “League of Denial” about the NFL’s culpability in head trauma matters. ESPN and Frontline worked together 15 months on the project before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell saw a trailer of the project and objected to ESPN’s top management, which announced that it would remove its branding from the project, citing a lack of editorial control.
ESPN’s willingness to accept the NFL’s demand was seen as yet another sign that the network’s deference to the league regarding reporting of controversial stories prevailed again. It’s not known whether the imminent settlement was influential in the NFL’s demand that ESPN unhitch from the project.