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September 4, 2013

NFL concussion settlement no victory for safety

By Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— The NFL concussion settlement had both sides cheering the outcome of the case. The league will kick in $765 million over the next 20 years and the 4,500 former players who had sued the league will draw from the fund to help pay medical costs linked to serious injuries they sustained while playing pro football.

That might be a win-win for the two parties, but how can any real resolution that doesn’t provide more understanding into the cause or treatment of concussions be declared a victory?

It can’t. The NFL did not acknowledge any wrongdoing even though the players had alleged the league mistreated concussions by hiding the known risks inherent with a violent game. So teams will go on selling tickets and collecting TV fees, and players will take to the field with each knowing the devastating impact of a brutal game but neither doing much about it.

With the pro football empire ready to launch another season of play, it can celebrate the settlement knowing the fever-hot debate over treating players who face medical issues --  matters ranging from severe cognitive impairment, dementia, Alzheimer’s or ALS  -- has been addressed.

One needn’t be much of a cynic, however, to suggest it was a great public relations victory for the NFL.

The players were seeking about $2 billion in damages; the league, with revenues topping $10 billion a year, was originally offering nothing in compensation. They ended up getting about a third of what they sought. Score a major victory for Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL image machine.

But any settlement rings hollow when the source of the problem goes largely ignored. The agreement includes only $10 million for research and education. Maybe the NFL should have kicked in a dozen cases of Band-Aids as another sign of its good-faith gesture.

At the heart of the issue is safety. Identifying the problem is easy. Developing scientific-based solutions to the problem is not. It’s hard to fathom that the settlement does anything to reassure players that they are safer once they step on the field. They aren’t.

The NFL has a responsibility not only to its players but also to the tens of thousands suiting up on Saturdays for their college teams, those representing their high schools on Friday nights or young ones giving it their first shot in a pee-wee league game. They all dream of making a big play someday, but none give thought of delivering a blow or receiving one that could lead to leaving a player susceptible to Parkinson’s disease or worse.

Where will the game be then?

Injuries and deaths are leading to an increase in lawsuits, and juries are awarding significant judgments. Just a few months ago, a partially paralyzed high school player in Colorado was awarded an $11.1 million judgment against the school district and Riddell, the country’s largest football helmet manufacturer. In San Diego, the school district agreed to pay a former player $4.4 million when he sustained a brain injury.

ESPN writer Gregg Easterbrook said these multimillion-dollar awards – and others that are sure to follow -- place school systems in legal quicksand that has the potential to drag the sport under. If insurance costs become prohibitive, how could football at the prep level survive? It won’t.

Whether it’s dealing with injuries or the costs associated with the sport, solutions to pressing medical problems must be resolved and done so quickly. To those in the National Football League, the concussion settlement emits a stench amounting to nothing more than a realization about the cost of doing business. The question that looms larger is whether football as a business can survive its own shortsightedness.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.