Sunday, January 12, 2014

NFL Dodges a Bullet in Head-Injury Lawsuit

      Frank Bruni apparently likes a good football game as much as the next guy, but the New York Times columnist was discomfited by the Indianapolis Colts’ come-from-behind victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in an early round in the National Football League (NFL) playoffs. Bruni was bothered not so much by the outcome as by the injuries to key Chiefs players that contributed to their loss.
      In all, the Chiefs lost three players to concussions during the game: running back Jamaal Charles, wide receiver Donny Avery, and star cornerback Brandon Flowers. Bruni related the scene in his column [Jan. 7] as Flowers lay motionless just off the sidelines after his head had whipped into another player’s legs. 
      Disturbingly for Bruni, the broadcaster treated the succession of injuries in football instead of human terms: “a momentum-buster,” he called it. “What clumsy but telling words,” Bruni wrote. “That's the National Football League for you. Broken bodies matter mostly in terms of a broken rhythm.”
      Professional football has been the United States’ most popular spectator sport since the 1960s. Tens of thousands of fans flock to mammoth stadiums around the country every Sunday, while millions of others watch in their living rooms or sports bars. The game is a money-maker for the league —
nearly $10 billion in annual revenue — and for the television networks that carry the game.
      The NFL has maintained its popularity despite increasing evidence over the past two decades of the serious and long-lasting injuries that the game inflicts on the young men who play it. “Football is hazardous to your health,” Dave Pear, a six-season defensive lineman (1976-1981), told me for my report for CQ Researcher in advance of Super Bowl XLIV (Jan. 29, 2010).
      Pear is paying for six years of pro football by living with constant pain from injuries to his neck and back. Many other retired players are suffering with worse: dementia brought on by concussive impacts sustained to their heads week after week. For a few, the pain and loss of mental capacity have proved so unbearable as to lead to suicide — for example, former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself on Jan. 20, 2012. An autopsy showed that Seau suffered from brain disease – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in medical terms.
      For years, the NFL game plan was to deny the connection, but the law finally threatened to catch up with the league. Two groups of retired players filed related class actions against the league in July 2011, seeking compensation for deaths and brain-related diseases they suffered from injuries sustained during their gridiron years. Two years later, attorneys for the plaintiffs reached a tentative settlement with the NFL, which was detailed in more than 350 pages of legal documents filed in federal court in Philadelphia last week [Jan. 6].
      At first glance, the league appears finally to be paying for what the game does to players. The settlement calls for $765 million in compensation for retired players, with maximum payments of up to $4 million for players who died from brain disease injuries and seven-figure compensation for players with dementia or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
      That seems like a lot of money, but on closer examination it is clear that the NFL will come out of this case with its finances intact and its reputation largely saved if the settlement is approved as expected. Compensation levels are reduced for older players:  a maximum of $580,000, for example, for a player diagnosed with severe dementia in his early 60s. (Details can be seen in the documents that are linked in a column by ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson: see Exhibit A.) And the compensation is paid out over a 20-year period. The present-day value of the compensation package — using conservative discounting — is around $500 million, a pittance for a $10 billion industry.
      Some of the retired players are balking at the amounts and could decide to opt out of the class action. If enough do so, the settlement might unravel. It seems more likely, however, that the settlement will stand. Judge Anita Brody, who has been eager for a settlement, is likely to approve the settlement following a fairness hearing. And retired players who qualify are likely to see the advantages of taking assured compensation now, with no need to prove causation, rather than taking their chances on protracted litigation in court.
      For NFL executives and owners, the settlement offers the chance to put this issue behind them. The lawsuit charges that the NFL failed to protect players from the chronic risks of head injuries and concealed those risks, but the settlement will end the case with no admission of liability or misconduct from the league. “The NFL will not be opening its books,” NPR’s Mike Pesca remarked on the PBS NewsHour (Jan. 10).
      The NFL has adopted a stricter protocol for head injuries, keeping players from returning to the field after concussions. But, as Bruni wrote, the league could do more to protect players: better equipment, better training, fewer games, and perhaps even weight limits for players. The occupational hazards appear, however, to be no deterrent to the steady flow of would-be recruits in the NFL draft each year and no great concern for the fans who watch and cheer with each body-crushing tackle every Sunday.

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