NFL gets off easy

But at least ailing players and their families will receive some aid after concussion settlement

Nowhere in the NFL's tentative settlement of a concussion lawsuit with 4,500 former players Thursday was an admission from the league that football caused their injuries.

That was by design, the carefully crafted work of the NFL's highly paid legal team that by now must feel like the '72 Dolphins of the legal community. Reasonable people know better but the league's deliberate parsing of the language to avoid liability still incensed critics who cried hypocrisy.

Lawyers do what lawyers do, so remember the key point of the NFL's historic deal worth $765 million to plaintiffs was in what the league did — not necessarily what its lawyers said it didn't do.

Admitting responsibility for the high personal price of professional football was far less important than taking it, which the NFL chose to do rather than drag out a lawsuit for years that would have sullied the game and sapped the resources of struggling families.

Follow the money. Even though the amount is much less than what some legal experts expected and what the NFL Players Association might have hoped, it still will come out of the deep pockets of NFL owners.

Even Tom Demetrio, the Chicago lawyer representing the family of Dave Duerson, recognized the payout was "not an insignificant amount of money.'' It includes a $675 million pool for compensation for injured players, $75 million for baseline brain testing over the next decade and another $10 million allocated for research and education studying long-term health issues of former players. The remaining funds will go for administrative costs.

By the time approximately $200 million in legal fees are factored in, the final bill for the league will approach $1 billion — yes, a relative pittance when split between the league's 32 owners. But given that nearly half of the settlement will be paid in the next three years once U.S. District Judge Anita Brody approves the terms, benefiting those ex-players who need financial aid most, it will be money well-spent.

Paying approximately $30 million apiece — about 10 percent of each team's average annual revenue — also represents a small price to pay to remove the threat of future reputation harm and litigation. The stain isn't gone but it should begin to fade now.

Now, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can say with a straight face that rules changes intended to make the game safer — measures that can't stop now — really are driven by concerns over players avoiding injury and not just the league getting sued. Now, hope for improvement in concussion safety in the NFL need not be linked immediately to fear of litigation. For a league that sends mixed messages on violence — just ask Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic — it's a start.

As retired judge Layn Phillips, the mediator, made obvious in explaining the settlement, Thursday's development diminishes the likelihood of future lawsuits claiming the NFL either failed to protect players from concussions or hid their impact.

"Everyone now has a … more substantial understanding about concussions, and how to prevent and manage them, than they did 20 or even 10 years ago, and the information conveyed to players reflects that,'' Phillips wrote. "In addition, the labor law defenses asserted by the NFL would represent a very substantial barrier to asserting these kinds of claims going forward.''

No wonder Goodell was dancing in the proverbial end zone. The NFL won this legal showdown by two touchdowns, even if the points scored for the plaintiffs in dire straits are much harder to quantify.

For some former players and their families, no amount of money ever could replace a loved one or recover the quality of life they enjoyed before their bodies and minds began to break down. For others who are beginning to enter the phase of their lives former players dread, the money will help preserve some dignity and at least finally provide some tangible evidence the league cares.

"(It's) a way for the NFL to protect the game and its pocketbooks,'' said former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who wasn't a plaintiff but sustained concussions while playing. "For me, as a guy reasonably informed, it raised more questions than answers. It sounds good but the devil's in the details. I guess those who need help the worst will get it right away, so that I applaud.''

Settling now to provide a little instant relief for those men whose personal costs were inestimable was the right thing for the NFL to do. Conveniently, it also turned out to be the best thing for the business interests of the league. Which was more important to the league? Does it matter?

Lawyers can use whatever language they want in the agreement to describe how the NFL ultimately accomplished both those goals. Just don't forget the word progress.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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