NFL concussion lawsuits explained
on the grounds that it misled them over the long-term dangers of head injuries. How did we reach this point? Why did the league choose to settle? And what does it mean for players in the future? These and other questions examined below.
For many years, the risk of suffering a head injury on the football field was viewed as an acceptable hazard of the job. Players who had been concussed would be light-heartedly described as having been "dinged up", but little thought was given to the long-term repercussions of their injuries. Many of those players would return to the field before the end of that game, sometimes just a few plays later.
The NFL first made a first gesture towards take these injuries more seriously by establishing the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee in 1994, but critics have since labelled this is as an empty, or even harmful gesture. The lawyer David Frederick, speaking on behalf of former players, the MTBI as a "sham" during a hearing in April. He argued that the committee ultimately served as a distraction that stopped players from seeking out impartial medical advice.
In the years since that committee was founded, a growing body of evidence has linked the repeated blows to the head suffered by NFL players with mental health problems in later life. Concussions are understood to be especially damaging. – a progressive degenerative disease which links to such conditions as memory loss, depression and dementia.
These discoveries prompted a number of former players – and in some cases, the families of deceased ones – to sue the league, seeking compensation for the long-term damage they had sustained. Those cases were consolidated in Philadelphia last year, but the number of plaintiffs continued to grow thereafter. By the time that US District Judge Anita Brody held an initial hearing this April, more than 4,500 names were listed on the various lawsuits.
On what grounds did the former players sue?
The case against the NFL alleged that it had willfully misled its players over the long-term impact of head injuries. The former players' argument was founded in part on the actions of the MTBI, whose representatives had continued to reject the evidence linking brain trauma to CTE.
As late as January 2010, : "There is not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football result in long-term brain damage."
The league finally changed its position later that same year, formally warning players for the first time over the potential damage done by multiple concussions. , and the league introduced new rules to reduce the likelihood of head injuries, commencing with a ban on helmet-to-helmet hits.
What was the league's defence?
In the first instance, the league simply argued that these lawsuits did not belong in court. Its lawyers contended that the matter should instead be settled through private arbitration, claiming that the process for resolving such grievances was laid out in the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that the plaintiffs had signed up to during their playing careers.
The argument was layered. Players had signed different agreements, depending on the years of their employment. There was also a case to be made that the various CBAs covered some grievances, but not others.
What happened next?
After hearing arguments from both sides Judge Brody retired to consider the evidence. She had initially planned to rule in July, but instead delayed her decision while encouraging both sides to settle instead. The two sides subsequently .
How does the settlement break down?
The fine details are yet to be worked out, but broadly speaking, the settlement breaks down as follows:
• $675m will be paid out to former players who have suffered cognitive injuries, as well as in some cases their families. The exact pay-outs will vary for each individual, and be determined by independent doctors and fund administrators agreed upon by both sides. Any compensation will not affect the existing benefits to which they are entitled under the CBA.
• Up to $75m will be provided for baseline medical exams; $10m will go into a research and education fund; Up to $4m will be used to cover plaintiffs' costs of notice; Up to $2m will be used to cover costs of the Settlement Administrator; The plaintiffs' legal fees will be covered, once determined by the court.
So, who won?
That depends who you ask. The will certainly be delighted with this deal because it states clearly that, despite making these payments, they are not accepting liability or admitting that the plaintiffs' injuries were caused by football. Effectively they have been able to make the problem go away without formally conceding any guilt. Crucially, they have also avoided the airing of any private documents that might have emerged in an open court case.
In the end, $765m is also a manageable hit for the league to take. , and is able to spread some of the costs associated with this trial out over the next 17.
On the other hand, the former players will know that any lawsuit would likely have dragged out over several years – delaying them access to these funds and without any guarantee of a positive outcome. Furthermore, they have scored a victory for those friends and team-mates who were reluctant to file lawsuits of their own. It is not only named plaintiffs who will have access to the fund for players who have suffered cognitive injuries.
Is this the end of it?
Not necessarily. The settlement is still pending formal court approval, and there may well be objections and appeals raised by some plaintiffs. This case, furthermore, only covers grievances against the NFL. A separate case involving former college students suing the NCAA over its handling of brain injuries will continue to play out over the coming months.
However, it will certainly be harder for future generations of players to launch any similar suit. The NFL's highly-publicised awareness campaigns would likely undermine attempts by current and future players to argue in court that they had been misled.