The world of sports is that of good calls and bad ones. The National Football League has recently made both.
Last week, I wrote about the NFL’s misguided choice to pressure ESPN into removing its support from a documentary about the effects of head injuries on the league’s players. Coincidentally, that same afternoon the NFL announced it had reached a settlement with 4,500 former players who brought claims relating to injuries like those the documentary will describe.
The NFL will contribute a total of $765 million to provide its retired players with medical benefits and injury compensation. The court-appointed mediator, Layn Phillips, contacted U.S. District Court Judge Anita B. Brody on Thursday, just days before the season was set to begin, with the details of the proposed settlement. Any former player will be eligible for an award, not just the plaintiffs, and different award caps will apply to those with varying medical diagnoses. Players will not need to prove their health issues are due to their time as a professional athlete to qualify. The settlement will also fund a program of medical research designed to benefit former players and their families.
Though Brody still needs to approve the settlement, when and if she does, it is estimated that players could receive compensation within 180 days of the deal’s completion. This stands in sharp contrast to the potential for years of litigation had the matter gone to trial.
Phillips, himself a former federal district judge, said in his statement, “Rather than litigate literally thousands of complex individual claims over many years, the parties have reached an agreement that, if approved, will provide relief and support where it is needed at a time when it is most needed.”
The settlement is both timely and the right choice on the part of the NFL. It is the right thing to do as a business and legal matter, because it gives both the NFL and former players a degree of certainty about the issue and an outcome they can all live with. Further, at least to the extent such things can be quantified, it is morally the right thing for the NFL to do. The league is not going to leave the athletes who built it high and dry. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly told NFL lawyers to “do the right thing for the game and the men who played it” in working out the settlement’s terms. They seem to have taken the instruction to heart.
Would the players have gotten more money if they had pressed ahead with their lawsuit? Perhaps, but a big chunk of that extra money would have gone to attorneys’ fees. Worse, the plaintiffs would have paid in years of their lives, which is something no settlement can return.
When you consider the nature of the disabilities that repeated brain trauma can cause, you might argue that the per-player average award could be larger. But awards of up to $5 million can buy a lot of care and give the hard-pressed families of these players a respite from burdensome health care expenses.
Moreover, the size of the settlement demonstrates how valuable maintaining a relatively safe workplace should be from an employer’s point of view. “Relative” is key here; American football is never going to offer its players the same level of risk as golf, or even soccer. And American football players will pursue their sport regardless of that risk. But it’s also appropriate that the NFL acknowledge that some of the profits it earns from putting gladiators on the field every autumn Sunday ought to be reinvested to give those gladiators and their families a more secure life in middle and old age.
Telling ESPN to pull its logo and support from the documentary it helped produce was the wrong call; in light of this settlement, the decision also seems senseless. The NFL has acknowledged that it ought to fork over $765 million to address the very problems that the journalists in the documentary will describe. At this point, it is hardly reasonable to deny the problem exists.
A good call doesn’t negate a bad one. In the greater scheme of things, however, the league’s statement is a big step forward toward an open discussion of a long-standing problem and getting needed care to those who were harmed.