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With concussion settlement, NFL heads off a big legal battle

Updated: 2013-08-30T05:50:05Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

Conrad Dobler knows why the phone is ringing and he has a million things that need doing around the business he runs distributing flu shots. But this is important to him. It’s personal.

He knows why you want to hear from him, a former Pro Bowl lineman and one of the most prominent advocates for former NFL players suffering lifelong health problems. Knows that his is a voice that needs to be heard.

He also knows that many might be expecting a different message after the NFL agreed Thursday to spend $765 million to settle a lawsuit from more than 4,500 former athletes who claimed the league didn’t disclose the danger of head injuries — what became known in football circles as The Concussion Lawsuit.

“I think it’s a great victory,” says Dobler, who lives and works in the Kansas City area. “It’s a great victory for the law firm that’s going to get 30 or 40 percent.”

The settlement still needs approval from a federal judge, but would cover all 18,000 former NFL players. The vast majority of the money would go to former players (or their families) with certain brain injuries. Also included is to be $75 million for medical exams, and $10 million for research. The league has 20 years to pay the full amount, though half must be paid in the next three years.

“It’s a nice settlement,” Dobler says. “But when it’s all done, over (20) years, what’s it going to equate to? Probably, each team won’t be able to pay the minimum salary for one player.”

Dobler is right, you know. On the surface, $765 million sounds enormous — three-quarters of a billion! — but in the NFL world it amounts to tip money. The total settlement figure is about 8 percent of the league’s revenue from last year, or around one month of income.

Twenty years to pay the full amount is also significant when you look at revenue trends. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said he wants the league to generate $25 billion by 2027. The math drives home the point about how little the league will be affected by this, even before taking into account that the league legally admits no wrongdoing in the settlement and will likely not have to release internal files about what it knew about concussions, and when.

There is no dollar amount that can be put on the safety of a man’s brain, but by any reasonable measure, the settlement is a resounding victory for the NFL.

The payout comes to about $170,000 per plaintiff, with individual payouts capped at $5 million for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, $4 million for those with a deadly brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can only be diagnosed posthumously, and $3 million for dementia.

CTE was found in the brains of former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson after each committed suicide. Easterling was the lead plaintiff on the lawsuit and Seau’s and Duerson’s families later joined the suit.

“Commissioner Goodell and every owner gave the legal team the same direction: do the right thing for the game and for the men who played it,” NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash said in a statement. “This is an important step that builds on the significant changes we’ve made in recent years to make the game safer, and we will continue our work to better the long-term health and well-being of NFL players.”

In reality, the league can claim a public-relations win with the payout but, more importantly, relieve itself of future liability while leaving its bottom line unaffected.

In that way, this is a lesson about how big business stays big business. The irony is that the NFL saved money on the settlement in part because the plaintiffs — former players, some of whom are employed by the league — needed money so badly.

For many of them, a dollar now is worth more than two dollars after however long it would take for litigation.

“This agreement will get help quickly to the men who suffered neurological injuries,” Christopher Seeger, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “It will do so faster and at far less cost, both financially and emotionally, than could have ever been accomplished by continuing to litigate.”

Ed Budde, the former Chiefs’ All-Pro guard, said he joined the lawsuit only to show support for his peers who need the help. He doesn’t consider himself among those in the most need, and besides, 20 years to pay out is a long time.

“I’m not going to be around that long,” Budde says. “But anything is a positive if people are going to help the people that need help. That’s what I want. I hope they help the people that need to be helped.”

So whether by litigation or settlement, this was never going to be a dollar amount that the NFL couldn’t easily afford. The league’s lawyers are too good at what they do. The NFL wiped away what had been its biggest potential problem with what amounts to less than $1.25 million per team over the next two decades.

Whether it’s comfortable to admit out loud or not, this is how America wants it. Or, at least, this is how we’ve told the NFL we want it through our spending and viewing habits.

As recently as the last decade, the NFL was denying a link between the violent collisions inherent in football and brain injuries. Since then, the league has walked a tightrope between keeping the hard hits that help make the sport so popular and taking precautions to guard against the kind of traumatic injuries to players that would turn off the public.

The league now requires players with suspected concussions to be looked at by an independent neurologist before they can practice or play. And the NFL has added rules banning hits to the head and neck and to defenseless players.

But even in those steps, there are signs that the NFL is interested in protecting itself first and the average player second. So many of the rules are aimed at protecting quarterbacks, which in turn protect the league’s TV ratings and profitability. Defensive players are the last on the list for protection.

We shouldn’t expect anything different. The league is merely responding to incentives. Fans and media can scream about how the league should better compensate and treat players, but the league knows we’ll still watch.

Toward that end, I’m typing these words from the Chiefs’ mostly meaningless preseason game on Thursday. The broadcast will almost certainly be the most-watched show in Kansas City. The stories from this game will almost certainly be among the most-read on The Star’s website today. The money will continue to stack up for the NFL and team owners.

Settling this lawsuit only helps clear the way.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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