Thursday afternoon, the NFL agreed to settle the lawsuit brought by over 4,500 former players, alleging that the league intentionally withheld information regarding the frequency and severity of concussions in professional football. According to the settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge before taking effect (like all class-action settlements), the league will pay $765 million that will go towards the medical expenses of former players and to further education about football injuries and their effects.
Despite the large total amount of the settlement, most people (myself included) view this result as small win for the retired players, and a huge win for the league. According to the plaintiffs, the league knew for years that concussions were underreported in the sport, and that repeated concussions could result in drastic consequences to individual players. By avoiding trial, the NFL is able to avoid a long and lengthy discovery period, during which they would be obligated to turn over any documents in their possession regarding what information they know about concussions, and when they learned it. Not only would that information be disastrous from a public relations standpoint if it turned out that the plaintiff’s allegations had merit, but the NFL could have been subject to practically limitless liability if each retired player were allowed to sue the league individually and make their own claim for damages. Instead, $675 million of the settlement will be distributed to former players (all former players, not just the 4,5000+ named plaintiffs), or less than $150,000 per player.
It’s worth noting that the settlement is also a small win for the former players. Although the settlement money isn’t available immediately (the settlement must be approved by the judge, then it could take months for disbursements to actually begin), they won’t have to await the results of a lengthy litigation to start getting money for their immediate medical needs. The league also agreed to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees, which could enter the tens of millions, so all of the settlement money will be used for its stated purpose.
Still, describing the settlement as a win-win would be somewhat disingenuous because of the huge pitfall that the NFL was able to avoid, and the relatively minimal compensation that the individual retirees will receive. The NFL will have to hold it’s breathe, however, as it’s possible that the federal judge reviewing the settlement will agree that it is too one-sided. If he refuses to honor the settlement, the whole process will start anew. Stay tuned.