NFL Players Association Still Not Satisfied By Concussion Settlement

A federal judge gave preliminary approval to a concussion settlement involving thousands of former NFL players. Host Michel Martin learns more about what it could mean for players and the game.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We still have our eyes on the World Cup soccer tournament. But there is big news this week and in what is still the most watched sport in the United States - American football. This week, a judge approved a preliminary settlement between the NFL and retired players that will get between 1.5 and 5 million dollars to those suffering from the long-term effects of concussions. The deal also removes a $675 million cap on total payouts from the league, something that caused the same judge to reject an earlier version of the plan back in January. The court estimates that some 20,000 retired players will be eligible. We wanted to get a better idea of what this means for the health of current and retired players, so we're joined once again by DeMaurice Smith. He is the executive director of the National Football League Players Association. Welcome back to the program, thanks for joining us.

DEMAURICE SMITH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've also called Jason Breslow. He is a digital reporter at the investigation news program "Frontline" and he's been covering concussions in the NFL since 2012. Jason, welcome to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

JASON BRESLOW: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So Mr. Smith, let me start with you. What are you hearing from current and former players about this settlement?

SMITH: Well, I think what you have seen in the media from - particularly former players - is a bit of relief that the settlement has been approved. There are continuing questions about what exactly is covered, what qualifies as a qualifying injury for compensation. But I think for every former player, the key here is to make sure that they understand what the settlement is and make a prudent decision about whether they want to opt in or not. We are not parties to the lawsuit.

MARTIN: So Jason, at the center of this case are former players who feel that the league did not prepare them or their families for the consequences of concussions. We spoke to former New Orleans Saint's player Kyle Turley, describing what he saw as a lack of medical care after he was knocked out once during practice, and this is what he told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLE TURLEY: To release me to my wife - to only have my wife be completely terrified and have to find somebody to take us to the hospital because she doesn't know what to do with me. And then I'm back playing football after a hospital stay overnight and back at practice full tilt, 100 percent, full pads, hitting, to test on whether or not I'm good to go.

MARTIN: So Jason, what about that? I mean, is that consistent with what you heard from other players over the course of your reporting?

BRESLOW: Certainly. I think there's a lot of frustration among players out there that - while they were in the league, that they never got good enough information from the NFL about the long-term implications of concussions and repeated hits to the head. And then players who retired from the league grew increasingly frustrated at their inability to get any assistance from the NFL. I think the concerns that Kyle Turley just voiced are very common among the roughly 4,500 players in the NFL concussions suit.

MARTIN: You've been trying to document this over the course of a couple of seasons. And one of the things that your reporting indicated is that there's still a question of how brain injury is actually reported. I mean, you say that a third of all concussions are left off the NFL injury report. Now, why is that?

BRESLOW: Well, it really comes down to how the league issues its injury report. One thing that we found is during the preseason and during training camp, none of the concussions that take place end up on a league injury report. Now, that's not the case during the regular-season. If a player goes down with a head injury during the regular season, it's going to show up on an injury report the next week. That doesn't happen during the preseason. And as a result of that, you know, it makes it really difficult to tell exactly how widespread the problem is, and also to tell how quickly players are returning from all of their injuries.

MARTIN: What about that, Mr. Smith? Are you satisfied with the reporting - that the reporting on the actual brain injury that players are exposed to is fully documented?

SMITH: Yeah. Well, look - my job as the head of the union is to never be satisfied. Our goal is to make sure that we are always better tomorrow than we were today. Are things better? Yes. We have mandatory protocols for when a player has suffered a traumatic brain injury. We have unaffiliated or independent sideline concussion experts. There are mandated protocols for return to play. But all of those things depend on doctors, players and coaches adhering to the protocols. So can we always do a better job of reporting? Absolutely. But are things better? Yes. Are we satisfied with it (laughing)? Never.

MARTIN: Do players have recourse if they feel that they've experienced a traumatic brain injury that isn't officially documented in the injury report?

SMITH: Yes. A player - and we stress that a player has an independent duty to maintain and monitor his own health. If that player is not satisfied with the medical care that he has received - obviously, he can contact his union. But he can also take steps to refer himself to an independent neurologist at no cost to the player. So what we've tried to do is one, make sure that there are mandatory rules for everyone in the business of football to follow - but certainly to remain vigilant to make sure that those rules are applied fairly.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the NFL concussion settlement. Our guests are DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, and Jason Breslow, who's been reporting on this issue for the investigative news series "Frontline." Part of the settlement, Jason, says that players will receive different amounts depending on their age and the severity of their cognitive impairment. Based on your reporting, are there good assessment tools for evaluating that? And do the players think those assessment tools are fair?

BRESLOW: I think there's a bit of - a fair bit of concern among the players in the case. I mean, just last week, for example, a group of seven players filed a motion in court - in the Philadelphia court - with U.S. District Judge Anita Brody saying that the concussion was, the way they put it, was a lousy deal for former players. I think that's one of the main concerns is how will the league be able to track players' injuries once they retire from the league? One of the things that players are concerned about is that although the league has said it will award players in the lawsuit for very specific diagnoses such as dementia or Lou Gehrig's disease, these players are worried that broader symptoms of these diseases such as depression, or memory loss, or debilitating headaches might not qualify them for awards from the league later on down the road.

MARTIN: And actually the family members are also concerned. We spoke with Eleanor Perfetto. She's the widow of a former player who died of complications from dementia. She says that the impact of the injuries is a lot broader than is, perhaps, immediately obvious. I just want to play a short clip of what she told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELEANOR PERFETTO: It's the spouse who's going to bear the burden of this in the years to come - the spouse who is going to be the one who's going to be feeding that person every day, bathing that person, taking them to the bathroom. You know, the money sounds like it's awfully good. But they reach the point where there just isn't enough money to compensate for the physical and emotional pain and strain that that family's going to go through.

MARTIN: If that is the case though, Mr. Smith, what would you respond to families who say that they still aren't sure if they're going to have enough money to take care of their loved ones in the years to come?

SMITH: You know, I think any lawyer would tell prospective people who want to opt in to that settlement to make very careful decisions about whether you want to opt in, how you are covered, how the analysis or qualitative analysis of the illness will be done and then to make a prudent decision about whether you want to participate in this settlement. I mean, look, the key here for every former player and every spouse and every family member for this settlement is to make a prudent and careful decision about whether you want to opt into this or not. Remember this was a class action case. The union is not a member. We don't provide legal advice.

MARTIN: Jason, do you have a final thought about the current sort of iteration of the settlement based on the reporting that you've done so far?

BRESLOW: Well, I think one thing that is worth noting is while the NFL has certainly made great strides in changing its rules, one hurdle that still kind of remains is kind of getting over this warrior mentality that a lot of players still have when it comes to being out there on the field, playing hurt, playing through injuries. One, they feel like they want to be out there. They want to play hurt. They don't want to let their teammates down. But there's also a financial incentive in that they - if they're not out there, they run the risk of being cut from the team and being out of a job. So I think that's a hurdle that still kind of needs to be addressed.

MARTIN: De, final thought?

SMITH: You know, look. We will always be in a world where players will want to play. The goal isn't so much, I think, to question the warrior mentality. You know, one of the words that I hate in this business is for anyone to refer to players as gladiators. They're not. What we try to do is to make sure that players understand the risk, holding doctors accountable to give the right level of treatment, holding coaches accountable, holding players accountable, holding the National Football League accountable.

MARTIN: Recognizing that, as you said several times, that the Players Association was not a party to this particular suit, which was brought by a group of former players, if we were to get together, say, five years from now to assess whether they, as a group, are better off than they are now - better cared, their overall quality of life...

SMITH: Better treatment.

MARTIN: Better treatment. Their quality of life is better. What do you think the answer will be?

SMITH: My hope is the answer is yes. I mean, one major change in the world of the former players who were parties to the lawsuit and players today is there are no more two-a-day practices during training camp. Players now only can have contact one day a week during the course of the season. There is a longer off-season for rest and recovery. Do we know more, scientifically, now than we did? Yes. But one critical factor that continues to be one that concerns us is the use of painkilling drugs. Do we have to continue to monitor that and make sure that it's not masking traumatic brain injuries or in some other way exacerbating injuries that are already there? Yes. Is the hope that five years from now, will the quality of life of our current players be better? Yes, I do believe it will. But it will only be better if we remain vigilant as a union and responsible as a league.

MARTIN: DeMaurice Smith is the executive director of the National Football League Players Association. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.. Jason Breslow was also with us. He's a digital associate at the investigative news show "Frontline." He was with us from Boston. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

BRESLOW: Thank you.

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