Concussion Suits: NFL, Retirees Reach $765 Million Deal

More than 4,500 retired players had been part of the lawsuits. They claimed the league hadn't properly protected them over the years. In the settlement, the NFL does not admit any liability.

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A dark cloud hanging over the National Football League is a bit lighter today. There is a proposed settlement in a huge concussion lawsuit, brought by over 4,000 former players. The agreement was reached and announced yesterday, a week before the start of the new NFL season. If approved, the league will pay out $765 million to as many as 18,000 former players. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It was a volatile and contentious case. Thousands of former NFL players alleged the league for years knew about the long-term dangers of concussions, but covered it up. The NFL denied the claims just as strongly. Christopher Seeger, one of the lead lawyers for the players, says the two sides were still fighting up until about 2:00 in the morning yesterday.

CHRISTOPHER SEEGER: And right now we're not fighting anymore, and I'm thrilled with the deal. It came right into place and it gives the players what we think they needed.

GOLDMAN: Here's what it gives: $75 million dollars for baseline medical exams to measure former player's neurocognitive functions, $10 million for concussion research and education. And then the big slice of the pie: $675 million dollars for players or families of players who suffered cognitive injury. The amount paid out will be based on age, years in the NFL and the specific illness. Chris Seeger.

SEEGER: The compensation program will assure that any player who's developed a serious neurological problem will receive a substantial benefit, in some cases as high as $5 million dollars.

GOLDMAN: For families of deceased players who had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a brain disease linked to head trauma. And possible seven-figure compensation for players with conditions such as Alzheimer's, dementia and ALS. There's no hard science linking concussions to ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

But on the conference call with Seeger yesterday, former NFL player Kevin Turner, who's 44, talked about his struggle with the disease. In halting words, Turner praised the settlement for lifting a huge financial and emotional burden for men suffering right now.

KEVIN TURNER: It will give them the peace of mind to have the best quality of life they're able to have.

GOLDMAN: Any player who has retired by the time the settlement is given preliminary approval - Seeger thinks that'll be in 30 to 60 days - those players will be included in the deal, and they could total more than 18,000. The NFL has 20 years to pay the settlement, approximately half of it over the first three years. And compensation could start flowing within months of final approval - a big plus for plaintiffs, says Seeger.

SEEGER: Not 10 years from now through litigation, or 20 years from now, but today.

GOLDMAN: The settlement also was full of plusses for the NFL. In fact, it's being called a victory for the league. In financial terms...

DARREN ROVELL: This is a complete drop in the bucket to the NFL revenue.

GOLDMAN: Which currently is close to $10 billion a year. And, according to ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell, should keep growing.

ROVELL: Twenty-two million dollars they'll have to pay in the final year of this deal when their revenues are going to be, what, 15, $16 billion?

GOLDMAN: It's also a bargain, says Rovell, because there's no more fear among NFL owners about the doomsday scenario: losing a lawsuit and having to pay damages that could've hurt the league. Also gone - or at least blunted - the bad publicity from the lingering litigation. As part of the settlement, the NFL doesn't have to admit any past wrongdoing. Most likely, records won't be released that might show the league was covering up as the plaintiffs alleged.

But there still is the present and the future. Current players are not part of the settlement, and the concussion issue hardly is going away. But it is happening at a time of greater awareness, better science and in a more proactive NFL. And because of that, the league probably never will face the kind of massive, concussion-related threat to its image and its riches that it did until yesterday. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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