It's a testament to the NFL's massive financial success that they can claim victory while still agreeing to hand over $765 million.
The truth is, that if the massive proposed settlement, to be paid out to former NFL players and their families, holds up it will be a huge win for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell. As evidence grows that NFL players risk serious life-altering health risks due to concussions and other serious injuries, this settlement, which undoubtedly will help the players involved and their families, effectively ends the first major threat to the NFL's current existence without forcing the league to make meaningful changes.
At first glance it might seem like the NFL has lost big time here, having been forced to pay out $765 million to over 4,500 former players, with that total before factoring in lawyer fees, "to fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation, and a program of medical research''. While this would come out to about $170,000 per player if handed out equally to each player, it's been reported that the actual payouts would be tied to the individual's specific medical conditions. Plus that estimate also factors in around $75 million of the settlement would go towards medical tests and there would be around $10 million leftover for further scientific research.
So, make no mistake, this is a significant amount of money, don't expect Roger Goodell to pull a Randy Moss and joke about paying it out in "straight cash homey", However, even a quick look at the NFL's finances makes it very clear that this will not be a crippling blow. The NFL made $9.5 billion last year alone. In relative terms this is a small price to pay to avoid confronting the fact that they have literally been killing their employees. On top of this, around half of this money will be doled out over the course of the next 17 years, severely lessening the immediate financial consequences for the league.
Considering the fact that many had estimated that this lawsuit would have cost the NFL $5-10 billion, it's hard not to see this as a huge victory for the league, not that it's in their best interests to spin it that way. Sports Illustrated's Peter King, whose transformation into Roger Goodell's Minister of Propaganda is nearly complete, poked his head out on Twitter to dismiss those suggesting that this was any sort of financial victory for the league, tweeting out "I love everyone calling $765m chump change". (Deadspin, in maybe the only amusing thing to come out of this news story, responded with a visual aid to show exactly why many experts believe this indeed was "chump change", comparatively speaking.)
One clear victory NFL was perfectly okay with advertising could be found in the press release accompanying the announcement:
The settlement does not represent, and cannot be considered, an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs' injuries were caused by football.
As Grantland's Bill Barnwell notes, this settlement allows them to pay off the plaintiffs without acknowledging any liability, pretty much the best case scenario imaginable. Not admitting fault gives the NFL a much better chance at defeating future lawsuits, which are nearly inevitable.
The timing is perfect as well. By resolving this lawsuit before the start of the NFL regular season, Goodell ensures that at least this particular story won't distract fans from the on-field product, which is as popular and profitable as it has ever been, once the real games begin. The hope is that the lawsuit will be forgotten as quickly as other distracting, soon-to-end preseason storylines such as "Tim Tebow, NFL quarterback". The $765 million might end up being a worthwhile financial move for PR reasons alone. It doesn't feel like a coincidence that this news comes almost immediately following reports that the NFL pressured ESPN into dropping out of a collaborative documentary with PBS's "Frontline" about the long-term effects of concussions.
That documentary will instead be entirely PBS's, more evidence that stories about the long-term health risks in football have moved beyond the sports page to front page headlines. Just two weeks ago, GQ published a very bleak oral history of the decline of San Diego Charger legend Junior Seau, one of the suit's plaintiffs, whose 2012 suicide may have been linked to brain damage connected with concussions. With the mainstream media becoming more and more aware of this issue, the NFL could not risk gathering even more negative attention by wringing-out this lawsuit over the next few years.
As the evidence of the catastrophic health risks involved with playing football at the highest levels, the NFL has begun to take the pages from Big Tobacco as they filibuster and stall in the face of increasingly bleak scientific evidence. The NFL is a violent, dangerous place where every player who comes on to the field puts his body and health, physical and mental, short-term and long-term, on the line. This settlement will allow the NFL to continue without making changes beyond mere cosmetic ones. David Roth of SB Nation pinpoints this as the most depressing part of a thoroughly depressing resolution:
The NFL could mitigate, in any number of ways, the carnage the game makes, before and during and after its systematic infliction. It could try, all while continuing to make money at historic rates, to be better than it is. If the settlement is not a total failure, it also does not demand that. And the NFL will not change in any of the directions that science and morality alike suggest it should if it does not have to do so. The settlement means that the NFL does not have to change, and so it won't.
Certainly, the NFL will most likely make some changes once this suit is officially resolved, at the very least one hopes that this concludes Goodell's profitable-yet-psychotic idea that the regular NFL season should extend from 16 games to 18. Unfortunately, it's hard to read this result as anything other than a license for the NFL to continue with the status quo without worrying about this particular type of lawsuit again.
None of this is saying that it may not have been in the best interests of the lawsuit's plaintiffs to accept this deal. As CBSSports' Will Brinson points out: "They had little choice but to take the money given how long the legal system can take to process complex litigation like this." In other words, the NFL were able to push this agreement through because they had the resources to out-wait the players in need, especially since there was no complete guarantee that they would win the suit.
So that's the good news involving the former players or, in cases where the player himself has passed, their loved ones. The bad news is that it gives the league little real motivation to protect current and future employees from similar fates. Maybe $765 million isn't chump change even for the NFL, but Goodell and company must know that, in the end, their side isn't the one paying their sport's true costs.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © vtravelled