NEW YORK — The hundreds of millions of dollars the NFL is ready to pay former players sound great ... until you stretch it out over 20 years and divide it among thousands of people.
That’s why some former players think the league is getting off cheap in its tentative settlement with victims of concussion-related brain injuries. The deal announced Thursday to settle 4,500 or so claims is awaiting approval by a federal judge in Philadelphia.
“$765 million?” asked former Minnesota Viking Brent Boyd, one of the original plaintiffs. “The breakdown is (less than) $1.2 million over 20 years per team. What is that, a third of the average salary? There is no penalty there. It’s pocket change.”
Former players union president and Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae complained that the NFL does not have to admit culpability.
“The unfortunate thing is that the general fan, they see $765 million and they think it’s a windfall for the players. It’s great for ... the guys that would fall in the category of needing immediate help,” Mawae said. “But it’s $700 million worth of hush money that they will never have to be accountable for.”
Other former players didn’t seem as concerned about the amount of money, preferring to focus on the timing of the settlement. They said getting medical coverage now for their peers — or themselves — who suffer from a variety of brain ailments and other health problems is essential.
“Those people who need help now, really need the help the most and need it right now and not five years from now, will get the help,” said former fullback Kevin Turner, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was one of the lead plaintiffs. “That is key. It is hard to put a dollar figure on ALS or Parkinson’s or dementia and all these things. But if you ask me, I think it is fair.”
The lawsuits accused the NFL of concealing the long-term dangers of concussions while glorifying hits on the field.
The settlement calls for payouts of up to $5 million for players suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; up to $4 million for those who died of brain injuries known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE; and up to $3 million for players suffering from dementia. The NFL also will pay for medical exams and devote $10 million toward medical research.
The payments will hardly be a burden to the 32 NFL teams. The league generates close to $10 billion a year in revenue, and that is certain to rise when new TV contracts are negotiated in the near future.
Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., estimated the settlement will cost the NFL $45 million a year — 0.4 percent of current revenue.
As Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson put it, the NFL “has the resources to sort of stretch things out for years and years and years. The players don’t have years and years and years.
“When I look at the number of players who have had neurological issues and have passed on,” added Carson, who was not a plaintiff, “I think now of the guys who are just starting to experience neurological issues. They are going to be handled more humanely.”
It’s also a positive public relations move for the NFL just a week before the season kicks off. Commissioner Roger Goodell can point to the settlement and the league’s player-safety initiatives as proof that pro football is dealing forcefully with the issue.
“PR-wise, it allows the league and the players association and medical experts and the U.S. Army and Harvard to show how they are coming up with solutions for the future rather than addressing omissions of the past,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports consulting firm that does business with the league and several teams.
But some former players wonder whether their future will be any brighter as they try to deal with brain disease.
Boyd said he foresees a “bureaucratic nightmare of red tape” in attempts to get approved for coverage and then receive treatment. He said he has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and has signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
“When I testified before Congress,” he said, “I spoke of how the NFL’s plan to cover disabilities was to delay, deny, hope they die.”