They were Hall of Famers like Tony Dorsett, Super Bowl MVPs like Mark Rypien, and longtime backups like Don Strock.
In all, more than 4,500 retired players began suing the NFL two years ago, saying the league concealed what it knew about the long-term dangers of concussions and did not properly care for the head injuries that were long an accepted part of the game.
Under a tentative settlement announced Thursday, the NFL agreed to shell out more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, nearly all going to any former players – not just those who went to court – with dementia or other concussion-related health problems, even if the cause was not the very on-field violence that fueled professional football’s rise in popularity and profit.
The deal stipulates that it is not to be considered an admission of liability by the NFL.
“It’s a good day, because we’re getting help for those who need help,” Rypien told The Associated Press, “and a sad day, because we didn’t get this done earlier to help guys in the past.”
Rypien had two diagnosed concussions during 11 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL, including a championship with the Washington Redskins in 1992.
“I’m relieved; I don’t know about pleased. There are probably too many details to work through that we don’t all understand yet, quite frankly,” said Rypien, who has dealt with depression and difficulty remembering conversations. “But I’m relieved that both sides came together to protect the game we all love and help the players of the past and tomorrow. And to especially help those who need help right now, who have cognitive issues and those whose quality of life has been taken away.”
The settlement, unprecedented in sports, came after more than a year of discussions between the sides and two months of court-ordered mediation. Subject to approval by a federal judge, it came exactly a week before the first game of the 2013 season, removing a major legal and financial threat hanging over the sport.
U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody in Philadelphia is expected to rule on the settlement in two to three months but said it “holds the prospect of avoiding lengthy, expensive and uncertain litigation, and of enhancing the game of football.”
The settlement applies to all past NFL players and spouses of those who are deceased, a group that could total more than 20,000, and will cost the league $765 million – the vast majority of which would go to compensate retirees with certain neurological ailments – plus plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which could top $100 million. It sets aside $75 million for medical exams and $10 million for medical research.
Individual payouts would be capped at $5 million for men with Alzheimer’s disease; $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy; and $3 million for players with dementia, said lead plaintiffs’ lawyer Christopher Seeger.
“We got what we wanted, let’s put it that way,” Seeger said.
The NFL takes in revenues of more than $9 billion a year, a figure that will rise when new TV contracts start in 2014.
Commissioner Roger Goodell did not comment on the settlement.