(Bloomberg) — The National Football League won final court approval of a $765 million settlement of ex-player head-injury claims, overriding criticism that the money still falls short and the deal terms are unfair.
The decision ends almost two years of negotiations over head injuries — at least for now — after the league agreed to changes sought by the judge overseeing the case.
If no appeals are filed, the benefits process will open as soon as this summer, Chris Seeger, lead attorney for the players, said in a statement. “If any objector appeals the final approval order, however, no benefits will become available until this process is exhausted — which will take months, if not years to resolve.”
More than 5,000 former football players sued the league seeking damages for head injuries. In the complaints, consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia, the retirees accused the NFL of negligence and failing to tell players of the link between repeated traumatic head impacts and long-term brain injuries.
U.S. District Judge Anita Brody said Wednesday that the revised deal was “more favorable” to the class of more than 20,000 retired football players. Most of the players had endorsed the agreement.
“Today’s decision powerfully underscores the fairness and propriety of this historic settlement,” Jeff Pash, the NFL’s general counsel, said in an e-mailed statement. “Retirees and their families will be eligible for prompt and substantial benefits and will avoid years of costly litigation.”
Brody’s ruling comes as the National Hockey League faces mounting claims over head injuries. Similar claims have been filed against U.S. soccer organizations and FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.
Last week, a federal judge in Chicago declined to approve the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s $75 million settlement over student players’ concussions after a plaintiffs’ lawyer questioned the adequacy of the agreement.
While the NFL’s settlement is valued at $765 million, there’s no cap on a $675 million compensation fund that’s part of the deal. The NFL also removed a cap on a $75 million fund for medical monitoring. The league estimates it will have to pay no more than $900 million, according to court records.
The most popular U.S. sports league, the NFL reaped about $10 billion in total revenue last season.
Images and stories of retired football players suffering from ailments dealt a blow to the idealized post-career athlete, which is what fans loved about the game, said Robert Boland, a professor of Sports Management at New York University.
“I don’t know if the genie will ever go back in the bottle,” but with the concussion issue settled “the casual fan is a little more comfortable watching the game again,” Boland, a former agent, said in a phone interview.
The NFL “showed sensitivity” by settling with retired players instead of dragging out litigation, Boland said. However, the accord now makes an athlete’s post-career life a team’s “responsibility.”
“In the moment, in the snapshot, it’s definitely a victory for the NFL and it creates a dynamic where they hope to sort of leapfrog from this issue to talk about the game of the future and the development of a safer game,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
The NFL will have to be proactive in using the brand to focus on a safer ways to operate in youth leagues, he said.
The settlement doesn’t end claims against Riddell Inc., once the league’s official helmet provider.
Brody spelled out her rationale over 132 pages, writing that the final decision was made after considering potential pitfalls for the class. Collective bargaining rules could have sunk the case as well as potential league defenses that some claims were too old to be brought, Brody said.
The judge said she was faced with evaluating “whether the settlement represents a good value for a weak case or a poor value for a strong case.”
“The settlement allows class members to choose certainty in light of the risks of litigation,” she wrote. It also eliminates the possibility of arbitration, she said.
About 1% of players opted out of the settlement and dozens more, including a few who ultimately accepted the deal, criticized it. The deal fell short, especially for players with symptoms of CTE, a brain disease diagnosed only after death, they said. The disease has been linked to the suicides of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau and Chicago Bears safety David Duerson.
Under Brody’s direction, the league agreed to extend payments to cover deaths of players who died from CTE between the settlement’s July 7 preliminary approval date and final approval. Brody rejected calls to go beyond that, saying it reasonably covers associated symptoms of CTE.
“A prospective death with CTE benefit would incentivize suicide because CTE can only be diagnosed after death,” Brody wrote.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia denied a request by seven former players to challenge Brody’s decision, saying their appeal was premature. An appeal must wait until her ruling on final approval of the settlement, the court said.
“We are reviewing the court’s detailed opinion to determine where things go next,” Steven F. Molo, an attorney for objecting players, said in an e-mail.
Brody didn’t rule on attorney’s fees, saying the issue would be raised by petition at a later date. TheNFL has already said it wouldn’t contest as much as $112.5 million in fees, which would be paid in addition to the settlement costs.
The case is In re National Football Players’ Concussion Injury Litigation, 12-md-02323, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).
–With assistance from Phil Milford in Wilmington, Delaware, Michael Bathon in Wilmington and Erik Matuszewski and Eben Novy- Williams in New York.