After nearly two months of negotiations in the wake of a lawsuit that some experts considered a threat to the NFL's existence, the league and attorneys representing more than 4,500 former players who filed concussion-related lawsuits reached a settlement Thursday.
Under terms of the agreement, which still must be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody, the NFL and NFL Properties will contribute $765 million to provide medical benefits and injury compensation for retired players, fund medical and safety research, and cover litigation expenses from the players' side.
If approved, the deal would remove one of the thorniest financial and public relations problems facing the league in recent years. Had the players eventually prevailed in the consolidated lawsuits, the league could have been liable for billions in punitive damages. But by agreeing to a fixed sum, the league no longer has the looming threat to deal with in the coming years.
In addition to the financial terms, the settlement does not represent an admission of liability by the NFL or an admission that the players' injuries were caused by football. That means the league would be protected from being sued on similar grounds in the future. The former players had argued in the lawsuit that the league purposely withheld information about concussion risks.
Among the former players suing the NFL for what they said was a failure to disclose the real risks of concussions were Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the estate of the late Junior Seau, a former All-Pro linebacker who committed suicide last year after what family members said was a long battle with problems associated with concussions.
Former United States District Judge Layn Phillips, the mediator in the case -- which was first heard in March by Brody in Philadelphia -- negotiated with both sides for nearly two months. The agreement now will be submitted to Brody, who is expected to decide within a few weeks whether it can move forward. Anyone not pleased with terms of the deal can file objections.
"This is a historic agreement, one that will make sure that former NFL players who need and deserve compensation will receive it, and that will promote safety for players at all levels of football,'' Phillips said in a 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.''
NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash, the NFL's lead attorney, said the agreement "lets us help those who need it most and continue our work to make the game safer for current and future players. Commissioner [Roger] Goodell and every owner gave the legal team the same direction: Do the right thing for the game and for the men who played it. We thought it was critical to get more help to players and families who deserve it rather than spend many years and millions of dollars on litigation.''
Giants owner John Mara said the deal was fair for both sides.
"I think it's a good settlement primarily because it will help get money to people who need it much faster than had we gone through a long litigation with appeals and discovery and everything else,'' he said. "It could have gone on for eight or 10 years. This hopefully will get some money to some people who could use some help.''
Asked if he felt the league was culpable in hiding the effects of concussions from players, Mara said, "No, and I'm not going to get into that aspect of it. I just feel good about the fact that there are some former players out there who are not in good condition right now and we're going to be able to help them.''
The decision was mostly hailed by former players.
"The benefits in this agreement will make a difference not only for me and my family but also for thousands of my football brothers who either need help today or may need help someday in the future,'' said former NFL fullback Kevin Turner, who suffers from ALS and was a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "I am grateful that the NFL is making a commitment to the men who made the game what it is today.''
Former Lions running back Barry Sanders, a Hall of Famer who was not a part of the litigation, said in an interview on ESPN that "it's a huge step for the NFL. At least they acknowledged it was an issue that certain players had to deal with concussions and other difficult health problems. It shows they care about the former players.''
But former NFL center Kevin Mawae, who played with the Seahawks, Jets and Titans, criticized the deal on his Twitter account, saying: "NFL concussion lawsuit net outcome? Big loss for the players now and the future! Estimated NFL revenue by 2025 = $27 billion.''
The NFL indeed is flush with money, with teams worth an average of $1.17 billion, according to Forbes. The Cowboys are valued at $2.3 billion, the Giants at $1.5 billion and the Jets at $1.4 billion. Under the NFL's most recent television contracts, each of the 32 teams will receive about $200 million in television rights fees per year. When the $765 million is divided among the 32 clubs, the concussion settlement is $23.9 million per team.
But Turner and other former players believe that settling now will avoid costly litigation in the future and get needed financial assistance to players. "It's easy to forget just how many men have played in the NFL throughout the years,'' Turner said. "That's why today is so important for those who are hurting. This will bring help for them. They'll no longer have to make decisions regarding their health based on what they can afford.''
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"It's trying to get money to men who need it right now,'' said former Colts center Jeff Saturday, a former NFL Players Association president and a member of the union's negotiating committee during their most recent collective-bargaining agreement talks.