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NFL Settlement Ends Suit Over Head Injuries

head injuryYesterday the NFL surprised players, fans, the legal and medical communities — and even the media — by announcing a settlement between the League and 4,500 former players who filed a concussion-related lawsuit last year. Yet as many workers compensation attorneys and other legal analysts sort through the details, one outcome is clear: the NFL won big.

The NFL will pay out of $765 million for medical expenses and related research on concussions and head injuries caused by this violent contact sport. Half of that sum will be distributed over the next two years. The NFL will then be allowed to pay the balance over the next 17 years. But that amount is mere pocket-change when one considers the $10 billion the league rakes in each year, not to mention the financial boom projected from its future media contracts. Most troubling is that the league admitted no fault or complicity whatsoever in the concussion crisis, and can now continue to conceal what it knew about head injuries all along.  Finally, the NFL is not acknowledging any causal role between playing football and the catastrophic medical consequence that many former players now suffer.

Many agree that players settled for far too little. Individual awards will be capped at $5 million for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, $4 million for those suffering fatal chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and $3 million for former players with dementia. When spread out amongst all plaintiffs, the average settlement comes out to a mere $166,000 each. With the astronomical costs of treating such complex (and often fatal) medical conditions, the NFL payments seem insulting.

Workers Compensation Settlements: A Closed Debate

Moreover, the out-of-court settlement effectively quashes the momentum that had been building to identify NFL concussions as a kind of workers comp injuryIf such cases were covered by workers compensation laws, additional regulation could possibly protect many more players from on-the-job injuries.

Defenders of the league, including many talk radio and television pundits, cheered the news, and seemed anxious to see the NFL return to the good old days of real contact football.

Yet as a doctor put it in an op-ed for Forbes, “Perhaps the most disturbing reaction of all … is that the settlement now closes the controversy about safety and attention can return to the game.” Of all many unfortunately outcomes of the settlement, turning a blind eye to safety crisis in football is certainly the worst. The data showing connections between the game and life-threatening concussions (and other head injuries) has become overwhelming. And of course injury to joints and other body parts have crippled and maimed thousands of other players, haunting them long after they quit the game.

Over and over again, we hear commentators and league officials dismiss the crisis by saying, “Players understand the dangers. No one is forcing them into a football game.”

Yet any parent knows that expected that kind of foresight from a 12, 16 or even a 20-year old boy with the football bug is entirely unrealistic. Very male teenagers dwell on the physical dangers of anything, for that matter.

Let’s hope that the NFL settlement doesn’t bring an end to our conversations about the safety issues on the job, even if one works as a professional athlete. The risks that players take — whether knowingly or in ignorance — are no excuse to continue tolerating this epidemic of brain damage in American sports.

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Emery Reddy