On Wednesday, a federal judge finally granted approval to a proposed settlement between the NFL and more than 4,000 former players who had sued the league over its past handling of concussions. Judge Anita Brody had twice denied approval, forcing both sides back to the negotiating table, over concerns that its caps on the overall benefit amount paid to former players and future medical monitoring were too low. As a result, the caps were scrapped, and under this settlement, the NFL could pay out more than $1 billion in benefits to players suffering from an assortment of diseases related to brain trauma that occurred during their years in professional football.
Both sides have hailed the settlement as a victory for former players, and its approval could soon bring an end to more than a decade of litigating over the league’s past misdirection and covering up of the risks concussions and brain injuries posed to its players. Both the league and the players’ attorneys have argued that these players will finally get some sort of financial help and restitution, though there were and still are major concerns over the terms of the settlement and how much it will benefit former players suffering from diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, and dementia.
But even with this chapter taking a step toward closure, the NFL’s concussion problems, both in the courtroom and on the field, are far from over.
The vast majority of the players involved in this lawsuit agreed to the terms of the settlement, according to lead attorneys. But those who still have a problem with it will have the opportunity to appeal, and others who have already opted out of the settlement can pursue their own litigation against the league.
Lead attorneys said they had only “modest concerns” that any players would file an appeal, but by Thursday, attorneys for the family of Dave Duerson, the late Chicago Bears safety who shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for research, said that they planned to appeal Brody’s approval. Legal experts seem to think that, given Brody’s lengthy process for approval and her addressing of concerns in her final ruling, an appeal won’t be successful. Still, it could hold up settlement payments to thousands of players, while inviting further scrutiny of the settlement and whether the NFL is sufficiently compensating players suffering from debilitating diseases, or whether the terms account for the possibility of future developments, like a test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living players.
Beyond that, there are the estimated 200 players who opted out, the most notable of which is former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. The Hall of Famer committed suicide in 2012; soon after, researchers found CTE in his brain. Unhappy with settlement proceedings, Seau’s family in 2013 filed a separate wrongful death suit against the NFL, and its goals are grander: rather than a settlement, which precluded a trial, Seau’s family and its attorneys want to go through the discovery process that could shed more light on what the NFL knew, and when it knew it, about the long-term risks concussions posed to its players.
The NFL avoided that discovery process by reaching a settlement in the mega-suit, in part because a large number of the plaintiffs needed the comparably immediate assistance a settlement could provide. Seau’s family, however, does not have that sense of immediacy, or an overwhelming financial desire. The family would have been eligible for up to $4 million under this settlement, but they’re instead on a search for the truth about how the NFL handled concussions.
Separate litigation “is the best course of action to help break the league’s pattern of secrecy and denial at the heart of the present claims,” Steve Strauss, the family’s lawyer, said last year. “Junior Seau’s suicide was a message to the world and the NFL about the dangers facing former players. It is past time for those dangers, and the NFL’s misdeeds, to come to light.”
“Since this litigation started, there hasn’t been one document produced, there hasn’t been one deposition taken,” he said on 60 Minutes this year. “It seems very clearly designed to nip this in the bud and not have the truth come out, and that’s not acceptable to the Seau family, and it’s not acceptable to Junior’s legacy.”
It could be years before the Seau case gets to discovery or trial. But if Strauss and the former linebacker’s family are committed to seeing it through, it could be far more illuminating of past problems in the NFL than this case or other exposes, like League of Denial, the book and ensuing documentary that chronicled the league’s efforts to cover up the dangers of concussions, have been thus far.
In the meantime, the league and its sport will continue to face questions about how it is addressing concussions on the field, the programs it has endorsed at lower levels (and the problems that come with them), and the changes it has made in an effort to make its game safer, especially if more players follow Chris Borland and others into early retirement due to concerns about the injuries. The NFL isn’t the only sport dealing with the issues concussions pose. But it is the most high-profile. And while it may have finally gained approval for a settlement in the landmark lawsuit from former players, questions about how the league has dealt with brain injuries in the past and how it will continue to address them in the future remain far from answered, even if the NFL was successful in bringing a swift end to the biggest concussion lawsuit it has faced.