It was inevitable. Of course, the National Football League wasn’t going to enter into a lengthy discovery process in which it would have to tell the world what it knew -- and when -- about the dangers of playing professional football. Of course, the NFL wasn’t going to risk a multibillion-dollar verdict. Of course, the NFL wasn’t going to go into another season with this massive lawsuit -- featuring at least 10 members of the Hall of Fame as plaintiffs -- still hanging over its head.
What is surprising is the paltry size of the settlement that the NFL has gotten away with. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Christopher Seeger, has said that avoiding litigation will allow players and families in need to get urgent medical care sooner rather than later. Fair enough. But it’s still a sweetheart deal for the NFL: just $765 million, paid out over 20 years. To put that figure into context, the NFL’s 2012 revenues totaled $9.5 billion. Better yet, the league’s estimated revenue for 2025, when it will still be handing out loose change to the families of players who committed suicide after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are projected at $25 billion.
The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell want you to know that it cares deeply about its former players. “This agreement lets us help those who need it most and continue our work to make the game safer for current and future players,” the NFL’s post-settlement statement read. “Commissioner 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.”
This is not to say that the NFL is recognizing that these men, more than 4,500 of whom signed on to the lawsuit, need help because they played professional football. On the contrary, the settlement explicitly states that the agreement is not an admission by the NFL of liability, or an acknowledgement that the injuries of the plaintiffs were cause by football.
In other words, the league has agreed to make this $765 million payment simply because it was feeling generous. This kind of language -- the non-admission of guilt -- may be boilerplate for settlements, but in this case it’s especially ironic. After all, way back in 1994, Dr. Elliot Pellman, the rheumatologist who was then in charge of the league's “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee,” said that concussions were part of the game -- “an occupational risk.”
For that matter, if the NFL doesn't believe that the league played any role in the condition of the many ex-NFL players who are suffering from dementia and other cognitive injuries, why did the league decide to ban helmet-to-helmet contact and move kickoffs to the 35-yard line? Why did it overhaul its "concussion-management" rules, requiring players experiencing amnesia or poor balance to be removed from a game or practice until the following day? What was the point of public-service announcements and concussion-awareness pamphlets?
But never mind. The NFL wins again. It has bought off the biggest threat to the future of the game for almost nothing, and it didn’t have to admit to any guilt. Are you ready for some for football?
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)