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OPINION | Steve Almond

The NFL gets off easy in concussion settlement

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faced a publicity crisis about players’ brain trauma when took the helm in 2006.

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faced a publicity crisis about players’ brain trauma when took the helm in 2006.

According to court documents, the National Football League has reached a settlement with the more than 5,000 former players who are suing the league for allegedly covering up the dangers of concussions.

Last summer, the NFL signed off on a deal to pay retired players $765 million, a sum deemed insufficient by the presiding judge. So the league and lawyers for the plaintiffs hammered out this new plan: an uncapped agreement to cover the medical expenses of retired pros suffering from dementia and other forms of brain damage.

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Many fans and pundits will greet this accord — which still has to be approved by the judge and the individual plaintiffs — with a huge sigh of relief. To them, it will be proof positive that the NFL truly cares about its employees.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What NFL officials care about is the league’s massive profit margin.

Consider the history: The league spent not just years, but decades trying to cover up the fact that football causes many players to incur brain damage.

Back in 1989, incoming Commissioner Paul Tagliubue sought to blame “pack journalism” for the growing concern over brain injuries. When it became clear the problem wasn’t going away, Tagliubue, formerly the league’s lead counsel, took the same proactive approach as Big Tobacco: He sought to shape public opinion by flooding the market with bogus science.

He did so by creating a “research body” — the eerily named Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee — that generated dozens of studies downplaying the effects of head trauma.

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The problem is that former players continued to show symptoms of brain damage. A number of them, including former Patriots star Junior Seau, committed suicide. Autopsies of their brains, many conducted by doctors at Boston University, revealed clear evidence of dementia brought on by repeated blows to the head.

By the time Commissioner Roger Goodell took the helm in 2006, he recognized the league was facing a monumental publicity crisis. He has spent the past eight years engaged in a high-stakes game of damage control.

Goodell recognizes that settling this lawsuit, at any cost, is the only way to fulfill his singular ambition, which is to grow the NFL into a $25-billion-per-year business.

After all, if the suit went to court, league officials might be asked to answer questions under oath regarding what they knew, and when, about the link between football and brain damage.

The immediate legal risk is obvious: If found guilty of a “concerted effort of deception and denial,” the NFL would have to pay not just medical costs but punitive damages.

But a trial would also be a PR nightmare. The discovery process would make public the grim medical histories of former players. They and their loved ones would testify in court. The media would be in a frenzy.

The ultimate risk for Goodell is that such a spectacle would rip away the fragile veil of denial that keeps us football fans from recognizing the true nature of our devotion: that we choose to regard as entertainment a game in which men suffer permanent brain damage.

Goodell and his fleet of lawyers have surveyed the medical data and come to the same conclusion that Big Coal and Big Meat did decades ago: The business they run is unsafe for their workers.

If this were a simple matter of morality, he wouldn’t be seeking a legal settlement. He would shut down pro football until its dangers were better understood. And he would apologize to players, former and current, for gambling with their health.

But Goodell is a businessman. He knows that in America, if you pay enough hush money, fans will silence their consciences.

Steve Almond is the author of the forthcoming book “Against Football.’’ He can be reached at stevealmondjoy@gmail.com.
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