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NFL, Ex-Players Reach $765 Million Settlement Over Head Trauma Suit

August 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The National Football League struck a $765 million settlement with retired players over brain-related diseases. The settlement will go towards compensation for the injured and research. Margaret Warner talks with Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN about what the agreement means for pro-athletes and the sport.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: There was word today of a major settlement between the National Football League and thousands of its former players over concussions.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: The settlement promises $765 million to retired players with brain-related illnesses that they blame on concussions suffered on the field.

More than 4,500 former players had sued the NFL, alleging it hid information linking head trauma to an array of neurological diseases, including dementia and a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The charges have generated increasing public and media attention.

NARRATOR: Coming in October, the “Frontline” season premiere.

MARGARET WARNER: An upcoming documentary on the PBS program Frontline will spotlight the way the NFL has handled head injuries among football players. An autopsy done on former New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau after his suicide last year showed he suffered from CTE. His family is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, as are Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett and the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon.

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The settlement money will go to examining and compensating those with brain diseases and to fund research. But the league won’t have to disclose what it knew about concussions and when. The agreement is subject to approval by a federal judge in Philadelphia.

And the agreement covers all eligible former players, based on the retiree’s age, health status and years of play, and the survivors of those who’ve died. Minutes after the settlement was announced, experts began assessing why both sides agreed to it and what impact it will have.

We explore those questions and more with Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN. He’s an investigative reporter who’s been working on a book about this subject and also on the Frontline documentary.

And, Mark, welcome.

There’s been a lot of commentary today, and a lot of commentators are calling this a big win for the NFL. As someone who has really covered this for quite a while, what’s your sense of it?

MARK FAINARU-WADA, ESPN: Well, I think there’s no question that the league wins on some level with this.

Obviously, the last thing the league wanted to do was end up in a courthouse having to deal with public testimony, having to deal before that with discovery, in which you would see possible documents coming out in which this really cut to the question of, what did the league know and when did it know it?

As well that — the public relations issue for the league is one they have wanted to avoid on this as best they could. And the settlement, the number is not — for an industry that right now is a $10 billion industry and, as one former player said, stands to be closer to $25 billion in 2025, the number is not a huge number for them.

But, for the players, there’s a sense of a win, too, at least among some of them, because you have players who are suffering significantly, and there was the prospect of this drawing out for five or 10 years and no benefits being available to them until then.

MARGARET WARNER: And some of them are getting on in years.

How big a turnaround does this represent, though, for the NFL in the way it’s dealt with this issue and complaints about this issue in the past?

MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I think, you know, there’s no question the league has confronted this in a way that they haven’t had to previously, if for no other reason by virtue of the research, the developments in research and the media attention it’s drawn.

You know, the league points out many rules changes it’s made. By the same token, in many ways, the legacy of the lawsuits and all this is that, on the one hand, you have the league, while admitting absolutely nothing through the settlement, having to deal with the reality of a $760 million settlement that goes to this very question of brain trauma and football.

And it’s hard to get away from that as a future part of the discussion. What is the — what’s the real sort of question about what does football do to one’s body and what does one — what does it do to one’s brain? And that question is not going to go away with the settlement of the lawsuit. MARGARET WARNER: So, as you point out, they’re not admitting anything legally culpable in terms of that they hid or — this info or misled the players.

But — so, you’re saying, though, this is an implicit acknowledgment on the NFL’s part that there is a link at least between concussions, severe concussions, and brain-related disease later in life?

MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I certainly wouldn’t speak for the league. And I don’t think they would — they would call this an implicit acknowledgment.

All I’m saying is, on the face of it, you have the league accepting a $765 million settlement about this issue. And people will draw whatever conclusions they do from that. And the reality is, moving forward, one of the major sort of discussions around this issue is not only what did the league know and when did it know it, but the very question of what does the game do to one’s brain.

And that’s a question the league has to deal with, not only at the highest levels, but at the lower levels, too, where it talks about Pop Warner, college football, high school football, and all those issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Does this — and I know all we really have is this one-page judge’s order. We haven’t seen the settlement agreement itself. But does it commit the NFL to making any changes to reduce the number or severity of concussions?

MARK FAINARU-WADA: As far as I understand the settlement, and from what we have seen about it, there’s nothing in there regarding rule changes.

Those are issues that the league continues to take up with the Players Association — Players Association. There is a commitment to further research money, and there is a commitment to doing financial — money spent on baseline testing of players.

But, as far as I understand, there’s nothing in the settlement that speaks to the question of what will the league do to change or mitigate against concussions or brain trauma in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, if you take $765 million, but I gather this covers not just players or retirees who sued, but even those who didn’t sue who want to apply, how much does that really average out to, or does that — is that the wrong way of looking at it?

MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I think that the way to look at it from the NFL’s perspective is, what is the number as it relates to how much owners will have to pay?

And I have seen, when the division is played out, somewhere around $24 million for each owner, if that’s correct. And I haven’t done the math myself. But I — I think it’s going to be different for every player, obviously, because the settlement speaks not only to players who have some cognitive issues or who are going to go through testing to determine the level of issues they have.

It also speaks to players who have ALS. It also speaks to players who have been diagnosed with CTE, which you mentioned in the piece setting up. There’s a $5 million cap for players who have ALS, and there’s a $4 million cap for players who are diagnosed with CTE, of course, after their death.

So, it will be different for different players.  

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, is — do you have any — what are your thoughts on what the implications of this are for current players, that is, future retirees?

MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I think that issue remains very open. None of those players are eligible in the settlement. They’re not — they have no recourse for getting monies through this settlement.

But I think it’s a very interesting question that I think the lawyers will know more of the answer to in the future is, if you’re a player right now who spent 10 years in the league and decides to retire next year, and then you end up subsequently having these kinds of issues, and you believe the league is culpable on that, do you have any recourse?

And I think — I think that remains to be seen. I don’t think there’s any doubt you will see more litigation. Whether any of that litigation has teeth and moves forward, I think, remains to be seen.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Mark Fainaru-Wada, thank you.

MARK FAINARU-WADA: My pleasure.