Keith Strudler: NFL Concussion Settlement

Sep 4, 2013

By almost any reasonable regard, $765 million is a lot of money. It’s the kind of number that would make Powerball ticket sales so crazy you couldn’t leave a 7-11 in under an hour. It’s the working budget of some decent sized companies, and almost enough to fund a presidential run.

So by that standard, the $765 million settlement between the NFL and its retired players is a big payday. In the settlement, which came days before the football regular season is to begin, the league will pay the vast majority of this money to some 4000 retired players that joined the suit. The money is spread out by some odd rubric, with more going towards diagnosed diseases, like ALS or Parkinson’s, or to families of players who committed suicide, or to those with dementia. In other cases, the NFL will simply pay by how many years the player was in the league. So if you played 10 years, it’s assumed you took way more hits than someone that lasted only two. It’s not entirely scientific, but little about this whole case is anyway.

Speaking of which, 10 million will go towards funding future research on head trauma, which sounds a bit less impressive, given the league’s recent assumed pressure on network partner ESPN to withdraw support from a project covering just this topic. The NFL has assured the public they’ll keep at the issue, from research to rule changes, that make the game safer. And you can believe whatever part of that you’d like. At the very least, we can rest assured the league will take every effort to look like they’re working on it, which might be a very different thing.

Besides the money, which let’s face it, is a pretty big part of this, the league gets to withhold a bunch of information about how much they knew and when, since that’s a crux of this settlement. Because it never went to trial, there’s no full disclosure of records, which could have inevitably cost the league a whole lot down the road. And officially, the league admits no wrongdoing it the settlement. So if you’re looking for admission of guilt, you’ve come to the wrong settlement. I wouldn’t exactly call this hush money, but it’s no mea culpa either.

So the obvious question here, or with any lawsuit, is who won. Public sentiment seems to side with the league. People figure that the league grosses some $10 billion a year, with projections to grow from there, so 765 million is peanuts. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that tact. While the number could have been bigger, because it always can, it also could have dragged on for several years for little gain. And let’s all try to remember the last time the NFL was on the losing side of a dispute, either with the players union or in the courts. Keep thinking, and go ahead and ask the long defunct USFL while you’re at it. So the thinking that the NFL might lose a game of chicken is likely underestimating some of the world’s most hard headed and privileged negotiators, many of whom have Congress on their side, by the way. So getting $765 million from the league is no small feat, and it should be contextualized that way. Think of it as blood from a stone, if the stone was as crazy as Jerry Jones.

So really, the question isn’t who won, but rather, what’s the long term impact of this, shall we say, split decision. While the NFL didn’t actually admit guilt, the understanding is implicit. With this payout, the league recognizes that football is one really, really dangerous game. Where longtime veterans end up in hospitals with diseases we can barely pronounce and need acronyms. That message may not be lost on parents and high schools, and even college presidents, particularly those hoping to avoid a similar lawsuit against the NCAA. That could mean a few less kids in pee-wee football, or some school districts rethinking their spending on a game that’s now admittedly dangerous. Or even the marginalization of the college game, something that seems nearly impossible today. That all becomes that much more feasible now that the league has settled a case they used to dispute.

The impact of this settlement won’t be measured in dollars, at least not today’s dollars. That means the final number could be a whole lot more than $765 million, which, by all accounts, is still a lot of money.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by WAMC's commentators are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the WAMC and its management.