On August 29, 2013, the N.F.L. announced that it had agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of players and their families. The lawsuit claimed the N.F.L. had actively concealed information about the dangers of repeated hits to the head, which have been discovered to include increased risk for dementia, depression, and degenerative brain disease. More:
The money would be used for medical exams, concussion-related compensation and a program of medical research for retired players and their families. The money, which may not be distributed for many months, will be available to all retired players with neurological problems, not just the plaintiffs. The N.F.L. also agreed to pay legal fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, a sum that could reach tens of millions of dollars.
The settlement will include $675 million for players or the families of players who sustained cognitive injury. As much as $75 million will be set aside for baseline medical exams. A $10 million research fund will be established. Assuming Judge Brody signs off, the deal could take about 180 days for the players to start receiving compensation, Mr. Seeger said.
However, the deal was not without critics who claimed that it didn’t go far enough. After the deal was announced, BuzzFeed’s Erik Malinowski tweeted:
Holy crap, what a bargain. RT @AP: BREAKING: US judge: NFL, players reach proposed $765M settlement of concussion-related lawsuits. -SS
— Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) August 29, 2013
ESPN pays $1.9 billion *every year* for Monday Night Football. 4,500 ex-players will get 40% of that (once) for decades of head trauma.
— Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) August 29, 2013
Meanwhile, Alan Schwarz has written a sobering New York Times piece that argues that, while N.F.L. players will now (rightfully) receive some restitution for their injuries, there are many for whom the settlement will do nothing, specifically youth who may just be starting their football career. Schwarz writes:
It is one of the strangest dynamics in sports: the N.F.L., a league for highly compensated adults, effectively sets the policies for children playing for free. The governing bodies for Pop Warner, high school and college football changed most of their rules regarding concussions only after the N.F.L. did so. In some ways, youth football still has to catch up with the professional game. The N.F.L. has eliminated much of the sport’s contact during practices, yet high schools continue unperturbed.
Youth leagues could do far more than they do for the youngest players, with the most vulnerable brains. They could insist on safer tackling and properly conditioned helmets. They could proactively adopt rules that the N.F.L. surely will soon, like drastic changes to kickoffs and new limits on head hits.
But they will more likely continue to wait for approval from above, like any player does for his coach.
In other words, there are many who run an equally high risk as a direct result of playing football, and yet, it still remains to be seen what will be done to protect them and ensure their safety. This reminds me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at the beginning of the year regarding the “impending death of pro football”:
I don’t know what the adults will do. But you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow.
I confess, I’ve never been a huge football fan, though I had my share of dreams of gridiron glory as a youngster. What’s more, I’ve lived my entire life in Nebraska and here, Cornhusker football is (for all intents and purposes) the state religion. Come late August/early September, it’s impossible, even for this lifelong neophyte, to not get caught up in the pre-season excitement, to not celebrate the victories and lament the defeats, and so on. And whenever there’s a bowl game, I certainly enjoy the pageantry as much as any fan.
But I also confess that as I’ve learned more about this particular dark side of the sport, and the lack of accountability surrounding it, I find it increasingly harder to suppress my concerns about a sport that can so easily ruin people’s lives. (Which is why I appreciated Owen Strachan’s recent Christianity Today piece encouraging Christians to be more thoughtful about the sport, its inherent violence, and the many costs associated with it.)
As I drive home from work, I often pass a football field where young football teams practice. The kids on the field can’t be any older than 10 or 11, and they’re fully geared out in helmets and pads, doing drills and running scrimmages. No doubt, they have fun doing it, and their parents and coaches see it as a positive outlet for their energy, enthusiasm, and aggression. And yet, were my boys—who, admittedly, are still too young for such a league—ever to ask me if they could sign up, I must admit that I’d probably do my best to dissuade them. Not because I hate the players and coaches, or think that football possesses no redeeming qualities whatsoever, or because I want my boys to be “sensitive” types who abhor any type of intense physical activity, but rather, because I hate the thought of what it could so easily do to them were they to suit up.
Obviously, there are many who come to a different decision. Again, I live in Nebraska, and on game day, Memorial Stadium will be transformed into the state’s third biggest city as more than 90,000 people come to pay tribute to the Scarlet and Cream. I have no doubt that many of those folks would think that I’m wussing out; that I simply want to coddle and protect my boys; that football can make my boys tougher, stronger, more disciplined, and so on; or that they’ll miss out on some significant camaraderie and teamwork. I have no doubt that there are some benefits my boys would enjoy were they to suit up, but even so, it’s becoming a harder sell for this skeptical parent with each passing season, each passing controversy, each passing revelation that this game is more destructive than many might think… or care to admit.
Photo via U.S. Army.