The concussion lawsuits are finally over, with the NFL agreeing to pay over $760 million to nearly 5000 retired players. With legal fees added to that the figure should come in at a cool billion. Some analysts are saying the NFL got off relatively easy with the settlement. While it's true the plaintiffs left a substantial amount of long term dollars on the table, their immediate payout is pretty darned impressive, especially considering that when this thing started the NFL was expected to get away with a $50 million payout. Remember those days?
Just seven years ago Paul Tagliabue was the NFL commissioner. The savvy lawyer would face a dozen players a year complaining of punch-drunk symptoms and the associated medical costs. Tag would slide them a hundred grand or so and tell them to keep their mouth shut. For some reason the NFL owners didn't like this arrangement, citing an annual outflow that could eventually eclipse $10 million.
Enter new commissioner Roger Goodell, whose intractable nature ended those quiet payments to the former players. That attitude was attractive to NFL owners. His was a 'Show Me' position. Sure, you can get a league payout, just prove you've got brain damage. It's not something a player could readily do, and when Goodell combined his stance with a wealth of silly, non-contact rules, the NFL appeared to have those pesky lawsuits under control. It really did look like they cared.
Even though the league appeared safe, a smattering of brain damage lawsuits persisted. Less than five years ago, journeyman lineman Shane Dronett had a brain tumor removed, then later shot himself. Doctors conducting an autopsy found Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. The condition had a name. The NFL's reaction: Eliminate the wedges on kickoffs. It further cemented the notion that the NFL cares about player safety.
Then came the big play in 2011. Dave Duerson, the great, former Bear's DB, kills himself with a gunshot to the chest and leaves his brain to science. More CTE. Dave's family brings a lawsuit and they are joined by several living players, and the plaintiff list jumps to 300. The CTE movement was underway, and the NFL did the only thing they could: Eliminate kickoff returns. Never mind that the elimination of returns generated so many more plays from scrimmage that concussions actually went UP! It's the thought that counts, and sacrificing what many consider to be the most exciting play in football should give the league a fighting chance in court.
Not a chance. The players had found something that worked and they weren't going to let up. The 'Show Me' commissioner got what he asked for. Players were showing him, and they were dying to do so. Former Falcon Safety Ray Easterling committed suicide, then future HOFr Junior Seau committed suicide. These weren't old, fat guys trying to put one over on the league. These were greats of the game. Now, the plaintiff list had grown to over 1200.
The NFL was done for. There were over a thousand plaintiffs - sympathetic ones - and the count was growing. What originally was considered a nuisance lawsuit was going to cost the owners some real money.
The NFL's last chance was the bogus Bounty Scandal. Yes, we know it was theatrics. If NFL coaches really had paid players to injure opponents, the FBI would see to it that the players would be playing Australian Rules Football in exile. Apparently, the idea was to jointly blame the league management and the players themselves for causing injuries, forcing the players to share the costs out of CBA funds. This would make the current players an ally in keeping the legal costs down.
That didn't work. By the time the owners had called in Tag to end that mess, all the commissioner had accomplished was suspending some league execs, and not a single player was disciplined. The net result was a paid vacation for some coaches. That, and the NFL commissioner's stipulation that the NFL ran organized bounty programs.
In the month's of legal delays since the NFL ran out of options, the plaintiff list grew to over 4500 NFL retirees, and many legal experts had estimated the possible damages to exceed $2 billion in the long run. So yeah, when you consider that the NFL was on the hook for over $2 billion, then the league did well to get out at only $1 billion.
But when you compare that billion to what could've been just $50 million, it becomes one of the great financial blunders of modern history.