The words were honest and chilling.
They belonged to former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who was speaking at a concussion conference two years ago at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“Maybe, when I’m done with this talk I’ll be so exhausted I just want to go back to my hotel and sleep,” Johnson told the crowd, trying to impart what it was like to go through the roller coaster ride of living with a concussion-addled brain on a day-to-day basis. There was a point where Johnson’s post-concussion syndrome didn’t even allow him to get out of bed some days.
That’s still a better fate than former Patriot Kevin Turner, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It’s better than deceased players Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Junior Seau, all of whom committed suicide and were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
Can you put a price tag on quality of life? The price that some players have paid to play in the NFL is more than the $765 million the NFL agreed to fork over to strike a tentative settlement with the more than 4,500 former players who were part of a consolidated lawsuit against the league. The lawsuit alleged that the NFL knew or should have known about the damaging and deteriorating effects of concussions and repetitive brain trauma, which can result in conditions such as dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.
For years, the NFL profited from selling violence, and in the end it will have made more money than it lost with this deal. The players are getting their share, but as usual it’s not proportionate.
This is a win for the NFL and its owners. The specter of a messy and embarrassing lawsuit will be gone, as long as US District Judge Anita B. Brody, who was overseeing the concussion lawsuit in Philadelphia, approves the settlement. Brody was the one who had ordered the sides into mediation last month.
Perhaps most importantly for the NFL was avoiding the discovery process of a civil lawsuit, which could have been both embarrassing and debasing if internal correspondence that revealed the league knew more or feared more about the effects of concussions than it initially disclosed to the players came to light.
Also, the settlement legally can’t be construed as an admission by the NFL to liability for the players’ injuries.
It was only 10 years ago that the NFL’s former head concussion doctor, a rheumatologist named Elliot Pellman, was publishing studies that refuted the conclusion that concussions were a serious threat to the long-term health of NFL players.
The league has found religion on the topic of concussions, changing its playing rules, developing protocols for diagnosing concussions and allowing players to return to play, and committing millions in support of the study of degenerative brain diseases.
It’s a tacit acknowledgment that the NFL could have done more to protect its employees, who are its product.
“I did not know what the long-term repercussions were from multiple hits to the head. Don’t tell me I knew. I didn’t know,” Johnson told the crowd he addressed two years ago.
It’s hard to believe that a league that compulsively tracks what color cleats players wear and which players wear unlicensed apparel to postgame news conferences of preseason games they didn’t play in (no more Adidas for you, Robert Griffin III) wouldn’t have had some red flags raised by the numerous studies that linked concussions and degenerative brain diseases and the sad stories of the health struggles of some of its former players.
Whether its stewards knew more or ignored more, the NFL did what most influential people do — paid its way out of a problem.
The reality was that many of the players participating in the lawsuit couldn’t afford for this case to slog on through the court system. They needed help and funds now.
There was no guarantee that the players would have been able to prove the NFL was liable for their concussion-related issues, which is why sports law expert and Boston College sports law professor Warren Zola said the settlement was a win-win proposition.
Both sides got cost certainty.
The NFL got to pay $23.9 million per team to resolve the one potential impediment to its hegemony of North American sports. The league will pay out 50 percent of the settlement over three years and the remainder over the following 17 years.
Players most affected by post-concussion syndrome are assured of receiving some compensation and medical treatment. Five million dollars goes to players with Alzheimer’s, ALS, or Parkinson’s disease. Players who suffered from CTE are eligible for a $4 million payment, and $3 million for players diagnosed with dementia.
“I’m usually on the players’ side. I’m a union guy,” said Zola. “But proving causation on this one was not going to be a slam dunk.
“Clearly, concussions are bad and football causes concussions and there is no doubt about that, but placing a percent blame on the NFL, as opposed to with someone who played four years in college and high school, is difficult . . . That’s why this is a win for both sides in that you’ve got some certainty in an amount of damages and some compensation for victims will be there.”
The real victory in this case belongs to current NFL players.
The league is now in a position where it must provide transparency with players in regard to concussion issues.
No rulebook will be able to legislate all the risk of brain trauma out of football, unless it includes flag football, but at least players now are choosing to take an educated risk.
“I didn’t have the information back then, and guys who played a while ago didn’t know any of this, the risks that were out there, specifically to this,” said Johnson. “Now, they know.”
This generation of players will get to put their own price tag on the cost of quality of life.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized Kevin Turner’s condition. He is not restricted to a wheelchair.