The National Football League reached a settlement in the combined lawsuits of 4,500 former players: The NFL will pay out up to $766 million (plus legal fees) to help retirees whose brains were damaged by concussions. That’s a good deal for league brass, who will not admit any liability or negligence. If the case had moved ahead, they might have faced several billion dollars’ worth of damages, and a longer run of bad publicity. Worse, they would have been forced to put a huge library of internal documents on the record. It’s doubtful that even the NFL’s top executives know what embarrassing secrets—or damning evidence—might have turned up.
The settlement looks like a solid deal for the plaintiffs, too. The terms apply to every retiree who presents “medical evidence of severe cognitive impairment, dementia, Alzheimer’s or ALS,” or to those players’ families. If I’m reading that correctly, the athletes won’t have to prove that any of their disabilities came specifically from trauma sustained while in the pros. Since these guys all played football in high school and college—and got hit in the head over and over again along the way—the requirement for specific harm would have posed a major obstacle in court. Lucky for them, the terms appear to sidestep this issue altogether. Any retiree with signs of brain damage will be eligible for cash, including those who would have gotten these diseases even if they never tackled anyone. (Among normal men above the age of 70, the rate of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is 11 percent.)
If you’re not a party to the lawsuit, though, today’s announcement doesn’t have the same appeal. In fact, it really sucks. According to the mediator assigned to the dispute, the NFL and former players have reached an “historic” deal to “promote safety for players at all levels of football.” That simply isn’t true—concussion litigation that ends here won’t help resolve the questions that affect players at every stage of their careers. Exactly how much disability do concussions cause? Can the game be made much safer? Just how dangerous is football, overall? A jumbo payout to retirees doesn’t get us any closer to the answers.