Football and its price

August 31, 2013 

Next week the National Football League begins play in earnest, and across the nation millions of Americans will welcome another season of this thrilling, but violent sport.

But this season will be different. It is the first in which the NFL has financially conceded that the brain-rattling hits that give football its powerful and, for the NFL, immensely lucrative appeal may be taking a serious toll on players. Last week, the league agreed to pay $765 million to settle legal claims brought by more than 4,500 players and their families over concussion-related brain injuries.

It’s hard not to applaud the sudden offer of money for retired players and their families. They have lived not only with the debilitating effects of multiple concussions, but also with the NFL’s long refusal to acknowledge that its riches have been built on a terrible price paid by many players.

The settlement, which will cover all 18,000 former NFL players, was reached by court-appointed mediators. Those representing the players felt an urgency to settle because many former players now suffering with dementia, depression and other brain-related problems need help and cannot afford the delay of further negotiations or trials that could drag on for years.

Settlement issues

Yet the federal judge who must approve the settlement, Anita B. Brody in Philadelphia, could provide more help for past, current and future players at all levels of football by rejecting this tentative agreement.

For one, the settlement is too small. The NFL will generate a projected $10 billion in revenue this year. Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said he wants revenue to reach $25 billion by 2027. Should a payment of less than $1 billion – notably without an admission of guilt – be enough to make the long-term consequences of the NFL’s game go away?

Secondly, the settlement does more to slow progress on the problem than to resolve it. It will keep the NFL from having to disclose the internal documents that would show its resistance to recognizing the risk and evidence of brain injury and its coldness toward former players who sought help from the league. What has happened to players in NFL games and NFL board rooms should be brought to full public light. That is the best way to keep it from happening again.

Finally, there is the issue of players who are currently being injured or will be in future years by repeated blows to the head. They are not covered by this settlement.

Research funding

The settlement provides $10 million for research into football-related brain injuries. Much more is needed to ascertain the safety of the game as it is played not only in the NFL, but also at all levels down to youth football. How dangerous is the contact? And what, if anything, can be done to reduce the risk of brain injury in football – and hockey, lacrosse and soccer – when the head is repeatedly in hard contact with helmets, pads, sticks or balls?

The NFL and contact sports at all levels have stopped dismissing hits to the head as simply having one’s “bell rung.” The potential consequences have been shown through the relentless reporting of The New York Times’ Alan Schwarz and the research of such sports scientists as professor Kevin Guskiewicz, the director of UNC’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.

For all the money generated by the NFL, surely more than $10 million can go to studying and preventing brain injuries that are obvious, documented and ongoing.

That the NFL is willing to settle marks progress on sports-related head injuries. But it shouldn’t mark the end of this issue. As the latest NFL season kicks off, so must a much deeper and better-funded campaign begin into what happens to the brain in a game based on collisions and haunted by concussions.

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