The NFL has reached a $765 million settlement with its retired players over concussion-related lawsuits. There were over 220 lawsuits filed by 4500 players, including Tony Dorsett, Eric Dickerson, Mark Rypien, Tony Mandarich, Art Monk, Jim McMahon and Jamal Lewis, as well as the estate of the late Junior Seau.
Make no mistake – these lawsuits fundamentally changed the sports landscape and the sports discussion as it relates to player safety across all sports.
Let's look at some of the key takeaways from the settlement.
Weren't these lawsuits just about players complaining about risks they knew about?
The key allegation raised by the players was that the NFL concealed information. The players argued that the NFL knew of the long-term neurological impact of headshots and didn't share their findings and information with the players. Players like former Bears QB Jim McMahon knew there was some risk associated with playing football. However, he along with about 4500 other retired NFL players, contend that the NFL had better information about the potentially devastating impact of repeated headshots and deliberately concealed this information from NFL players.
The players were basically saying this: 'We knew there was some risk of harm with playing football but not this level of debilitating injury. The NFL, however, knew of the risk and didn't share that with us'.
So concealment is a really important part of these lawsuits?
Yes very important. As important as avoiding picking Alfred Morris in the first round of a PPR fantasy league.
Who would have won at trial?
Can't say at this point. Everything turns on the evidence presented at trial. To win, the players needed to show that the NFL had key information about the long-term and devastating impact of headshots and didn't share that with the players (so back to concealment). They would have needed a smoking gun so to speak.
The NFL had some good arguments defending their position. First, they would have argued that players were aware of the risk associated with playing football and agreed to those risks each time they stepped onto the field. They would have also maintained that they didn't conceal anything. As well, the NFL would have pointed out that no one can say for sure what caused a player's dementia, and even if it was caused by repeated headshots while playing football, how much of that damage was sustained outside the NFL in places like college or high school ball. So what caused the dementia and when it was caused become important issues.
There's more. The NFL argued early on that these lawsuits didn't belong in court in the first place, but rather should have gone to arbitration. The collective bargaining agreement provides that issues of player health and safety go to arbitration and not court. On the flip side, the players argued that since this case involved fraud, it properly fell outside of arbitration and within the jurisdiction of the courts.
Bottom line is this: both sides faced challenges in this case and that's where we generally see settlement.
The NFL is paying out $765 million as part of the settlement? Who wins with this settlement – the players or the league?
The NFL did well. While $765 million is a lot of money, it breaks down to about $4 million per team in each of the first 3 years and then another few hundred thousand dollars per team for the next 17 years. The upfront payment of $4 million is by NFL standards a modest sum of money. To put it in perspective, that's what Falcons RB Steven Jackson will make this year.
There was the potential a jury could have come back with a big monetary award against the NFL in the billions of dollars. This settlement helps the NFL avoid that type of potentially catastrophic award.
So $765 million is a big number. Very big. But once disbursed across the league's 32 teams, it becomes manageable.
These lawsuits also generated a lot of negative press for the NFL. There were discussions focused on the death of the league. NFL MVP Adrian Peterson declared he didn't want his kid to play football because the sport was too dangerous. By settling these cases, the NFL can now look to change the conversation about football. That's really important.
Ok – how did the players do?
This case was going to settle. It was surprising, though, to see it settle this early. For the players, an early pressure point would have been to force the NFL to produce sensitive documents going back decades. That's something any business would not want to do, including the NFL. Still, the settlement suggests that the players had concerns with their case. Ultimately, though, this is not a bad deal for the players.
Does this settlement mean the NFL is saying they were wrong and liable for this mess?
No. The NFL expressly said that they are not admitting liability.
Why wouldn't the NFL admit guilt?
First – and this is key – they don't want to go on the public record saying they are guilty. If they did, a retired player could sue them and rely on that statement. As you can imagine, an admission of guilt would be a pretty powerful weapon for a plaintiff to use against the NFL. As well, from a PR standpoint, the NFL doesn't want to characterize itself as the villain in all this. Finally, the NFL's position is that they are not responsible. So why admit to something you are not convinced you did.
Wait a minute – retired players could still sue despite settlement?
Yes. The settlement agreement will bind about 18,000 retired NFL players. Specifically, it applies to every NFL player that is retired at the time the Court rubber stamps the settlement agreement. That could happen in the near future.
However, a player has the option to opt-out of the settlement agreement. If a player believes that he can do a lot better filing his own individual lawsuit, he would tell the court and the NFL thanks but no thanks, I'm headed to court. Ultimately, the player would sit down with his lawyers and figure out what makes most sense.
One more point – the Court has to be satisfied that the settlement is adequate and reasonable before it approves it (that's right – the Court has to approve the agreement). If it concludes the agreement is not fair, it may not approve it. So there's another reason the NFL didn't admit liability – what if the agreement is not approved.
Expect the deal to be approved by the court and close to all players agreeing to the terms of settlement.
Will we see new lawsuits filed by current players?
Those would be tough to win. The focus of the retired player lawsuits was that players were unable to make informed decisions about playing football because the league concealed information about the devastating impact of repeated headshots. Today that information is readily available. So it would be very tough for a current player to argue that he did not have enough information to make an informed decision. Don't see it.
So what's next?
Wait and see if any other players opt-out of the settlement and head back to court.
Does this settlement affect my fantasy lineup? Should I have drafted Lamar Miller?
No, your fantasy lineup is unaffected. As for Lamar, he should have a good season as the Dolphins lead back.
A-Rod makes me angry.
That's a separate column.