Did the NFL Really Write a Blank Check for Concussion Damages?

Source: roger_mommaerts / Flickr Creative Commons

With the news that the National Football League would be removing its previous $675 million limit on payouts to former players with a variety of brain injuries derived from their professional football careers, it looked – however briefly – that commissioner Roger Goodell and company were recognizing that they might have some moral imperative to help the people who directly contributed to the massively successful sport that they navigate to incredible tons of money. No such luck.

With the prospective number of injured players swelling to more than 20,000 and questions from federal judges about the limit, the league made a small concession to concerns about whether the $675 million figure, which is a drop in the bucket of the NFL’s yearly revenue (more than $9 billion, per Forbes), would be enough.

It won’t be. At least, not as long as it remains impossible to directly link football, concussions, and brain degradation — which for now is simply becoming more and more accepted as a correlation in the informal shorthand of public opinion. That’s why the NFL can say that it’s getting rid of the hard cap on payout amounts, retain the same structure of the first deal (just without the dollar sign), and attempt to make it look like the league is being conscientious.

Which it isn’t. One of the big critiques of the original deal was the oddly unsympathetic tier system that was put in place. That system is still intact, and it boils down to scenarios like this one, via ESPN: ” A young retiree with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, would receive $5 million, a 50-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease would get $1.6 million, and an 80-year-old with early dementia would get $25,000.” How very Lord of the Flies.

Source: University of the Fraser Valley / Flickr Creative Commons

Many players that are attached to the class action suit wound up there because of the imposing nature of the NFL’s legal team, and if any of them decide to opt out, they would be forced to prove that their ailments were directly caused by concussions that occurred “on the job” — that is, during an NFL game or official team activity, rather than, say, slipping and hitting your head on vacation.

That’s a lot harder than just sighing and taking the deal, especially given the chance that a former player could wind up completely out in the cold if he opts out and then loses his personal case. It’s not quite a gun to the head, but it’s certainly a convincing threat without a threat. Keep that in mind the next time you read something like this, from the NFL offices: “Today’s agreement reaffirms the NFL’s commitment to provide help to those retired players and their families who are in need, and to do so without the delay, expense and emotional cost associated with protracted litigation.”

That was NFL Senior Vice President Anastasia Danias, perfectly content to ignore the fact that “help” does not mean “enough help,” and that the league would be responsible for all of the delays and expenses involved in any lawsuit enacted by the former players in order to receive adequate coverage. Football is fun, but the NFL is not.