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Will ex-players find the NFL’s head trauma settlement sufficient?

January 9, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
The NFL went to court to file the details of a $760 million settlement over the impact of concussions and head injuries for retirees. Hari Sreenivasan discusses the details of the how the league came up with various values to offer different players -- and whether players are satisfied -- with Mike Pesca of NPR.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: This has been an important week for pro football. On the one hand, more people are watching than ever. Wild card matchups drew record ratings, averaging 34 million viewers. One game, between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers, attracted 47 million viewers.

But the NFL is also trying to deal with the impact of concussions and head injuries. This week, the league went to federal court to file the details of a $760 million settlement to retirees with head trauma. But is even that whopping amount enough?

Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studio explores that question.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I’m joined now by Mike Pesca from National Public Radio. He’s their sports correspondent. And he brings us up to speed.

So if people haven’t been paying attention, what were the details of this NFL settlement between players that was just announced a couple days ago?

MIKE PESCA, National Public Radio: Right.

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So, in August, they said that there was this settlement, big dollar value was attached to it, but who would get what, so that is what this next step details. Mostly, what they have done is they have taken ailments that could occur from head trauma and assigned a dollar value to it.

There are a few moving parts of this. One is, what is the ailment? So, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, if you are a player who played in the league for four, five years, you’re under — you’re 45 years of age or under and you have ALS, you get $5 million. Then there are sort of lower grades.

So if you had type two dementia, you would get less money. I think it’s $3.5 million. Also, if you are an older person, you get less money, the idea being the payment is made in one lump sum. So, over the course of your life, you will need less money. I think the smallest amount is if someone, an NFL player who played the requisite number of years, is 80 years or older and has some very low-level dementia, that would be $25,000.

There’s all these gradations in between.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And is there a distinction between age, say, for example, a player like Junior Seau…

MIKE PESCA: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: … who might have killed himself because of this, or it has been proven that he had this, vs. somebody else at a different age that might have done this to themselves?

MIKE PESCA: Well, yes, there is.

And one of the parts of the settlement is that the — a deceased player, if they can show that they had CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy — encephalopathy, then their family would get millions of dollars.

The age of the player, that actually is affected, and the number of years they play also affects the payout. But it’s important to note that they, the players, their families do not have to prove a causation. And that was really important. If you could just show that CTE was present, this settlement will pay you those millions of dollars. You don’t have to show that there was a connection from football, which in a sense is a relief to the players and the family, but also it’s what the NFL wanted, because they kind of don’t want to have anyone to prove that there was a definitive connection.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, now, players, the retired players don’t have to take this. They can take their chances.

MIKE PESCA: Right.

So part of the settlement is that they’re allowed to opt out. And then there is a judge, and what she has to do is she has to decide if she is going to certify the settlement and allow it to go forward. But if a number of players opt out, she might say, there are too many players that are against this, and you guys have to go back to the drawing board.

And there has been some rumblings. Players aren’t very happy. There are two big reasons. One, they say the NFL is a $10 billion industry and this is a settlement worth less than a billion dollars, you know, $900 million, if you include the attorneys fees. The players themselves will be getting around, you know, $800 million if all is paid. And, as a fraction of what the NFL earns, they think that is a small amount.

Other players who are unsatisfied with it want the truth to come out. So part of this settlement is, the NFL will not be opening its books. It will not be revealing what they knew and when they knew it. So some players are more interested in the truth coming out than money.

On the other side of that, you have players who are really suffering right now. And they don’t want this to drag out any longer. And they even acknowledge, maybe we could have gotten more money out of them, but now, me an my family, we’re going have $4 million. We’re going have $3 million dollars, and we’re not going to have to wait for years and years and years maybe to never get it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And this is a settlement that was reached relatively quickly, when you talk about NFL not having to open its books. The NFL really wants to get this behind them as fast as possible. Right?

MIKE PESCA: Yes, they announced it a couple — really a week or two before the season started.

They wanted to, exactly what you said, get this behind them. They don’t want the cloud hanging over the NFL. And it still will be, but if it’s less of a story in newspapers, if they could show a bunch of players who benefited from it, that will make their business — they feel that will strengthen their business.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you know what? Finally, the current players, we’re still seeing incredible hits in a very dangerous way in the NFL in even these playoff games.

MIKE PESCA: Yes. 

Yes, it’s important to note this settlement doesn’t cover current players. And there is a good rationale for that. I think the NFL is saying that these players should know what is going on now. And also we have introduced concussion protocols. And you see players getting head trauma, getting concussions, arguing their way back into games.

It’s human nature. It’s the warrior mentality. It isn’t maybe clearly these are good guys and these are bad guys, these are victims and these are perpetrators. It is a little — a little complex.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mike Pesca from National Public Radio, thanks so much.

MIKE PESCA: You’re welcome.