Football’s raw deal

The NFL errs again with concussion issues

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I told a friend that I was writing my latest article on the National Football League (NFL) and concussions, and she replied, “Again?” It’s become frustrating, but, yes, I’m writing about the NFL and its harebrained, morally ambivalent, public-image focused and money-obsessed policy on concussions in football.

First, there was the period of ignoring concussions and post-career brain diseases (circa the invention of football till about the mid 1990s.) Then, there was the “Big Tobacco” phase, wherein the NFL hired a doctor (with dubious medical qualifications) to study the effect of concussions on players – which, till 2009, came back as inconclusive, as decided by the NFL (I think the phrase here is ‘conflict of interest’). In 2009, the NFL finally admitted that concussions or other head injuries were linked to brain diseases, while not claiming any responsibility for these effects on retired players. Since then, the NFL has been battling the media, which started to turn on the league (especially when it was revealed that the league had denied coverage to many retirees who were suffering from brain diseases), as well as the players and general public. And the latest stage: a coup for the league in the fight for public opinion.

On Thursday, the NFL announced that it had reached an agreement in a critical lawsuit. A group of former players had sued the league for ignoring evidence that football leads to concussions and not offering financial support for players dealing with brain or mental injuries. Thursday’s settlement agreed that the NFL would give its entire pool of 18,000 retired players a total of $765 million over the next twenty years, with differing levels of financial aid given to players suffering from various diseases in retirement. So this is all ponies and rainbows, right? The NFL finally did something about the horrible concussion problem it’s been avoiding for nearly twenty years, right? Right?

Sadly, no. The NFL did a whole lot of nothing, created a settlement designed to deflect outside criticism while having a very small impact. In essence, the settlement gives the appearance of proactivity. For one, the NFL denied any wrongdoing in the case; that is, despite former players coming out and saying that they had been denied coverage for concussion-related diseases after retirement, the NFL still publicly claims innocence, that they were not wrong in misinforming players of the dangers of concussions, or not giving medical coverage to retired players, or not even acknowledging that playing in the NFL was the cause of these injuries. And even if you were going to say that those $765 million dollars might be an admission of guilt by default; well, the NFL has it in the settlement that the agreement “cannot be considered an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football.” (Which is darkly funny, in a way, as if we’re supposed to believe that the money is just a good-will gesture: here’s $765 million for your debilitating brain injuries, but it sure wasn’t our fault!)

In addition to this, while $765 million isn’t anything to scoff at, it pales in comparison to the $9 billion the NFL makes annually. It really pales in comparison to the $27 billion the NFL is projected to make in 2025, as was noted by former player Kevin Mawae on Twitter. The NFL is in essence actually, finally doing something: as little as they can. (There are some in the media who have blasted the players for taking the deal when they had the leverage to get a lot more – though their leverage was not so strong when you consider that there were thousands of veterans who needed the money as soon as possible; the NFL was negotiating with active patients, in a sense.) Bill Barnwell, of Grantland, also noted that the settlement might not be that helpful to veterans because with thousands of retired players seeking compensation from the $765 million dollar pool, the money could run out.

If you go to right now and find their story on the settlement, the video accompanying the piece is entitled: “Monumental Day for NFL.”  Sports Illustrated, on its website, have called it a “major victory for the league.” Those media outlets – two of the biggest in the country – have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the NFL’s pitch, that this agreement shows a commitment to player safety for the future.  (It should be noted that ESPN was asked by the NFL to end their involvement in a documentary about the damage of football).  And those two outlets shape much of the discourse on the subject – so this half-assed, barely-there settlement has become a beacon of hope. The settlement is a hand-washing, an attempt to get rid of the ugly media spectre of concussions and their post-career effects on players, without actually copping to any fault. I don’t want to say that this is nothing – it’s great that formerly ignored players are finally getting treatment covered – but shouldn’t we expect more?