More than 4,500 National Football League retirees, many suffering serious brain trauma from performing in a violent, multibillion-dollar industry, have tentatively reached a settlement of their concussion-
related lawsuits against the NFL for $765 million, a federal judge announced Thursday.
The proposal signals a new era in professional football after decades in which concussion-related brain injuries have been linked to severe neurological and psychological damage and tragic deaths involving former players.
“This is a benchmark day for retired players who are watching the hourglass and wondering when our time is going to run out,’’ said plaintiff Peter Cronan, a Cape Cod native who played for the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins from 1977 to 1985 and has spent 25 seasons broadcasting football for his alma mater, Boston College.
“It’s an acknowledgment that the NFL is willing to take some degree of responsibility for the safety risks we took to build the game,’’ Cronan said. He described experiencing early symptoms of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s related to brain trauma.
A database of plaintiffs compiled by the Washington Times lists 287 retirees who once played for the New England Patriots. They include John Hannah, Steve Grogan, Steve Nelson, Lawyer Milloy, Fred Smerlas, Kevin Turner, and the late Junior Seau.
Under the tentative agreement, which needs the approval of a federal court, the NFL would acknowledge no wrongdoing but would commit $675 million to former NFL players who have suffered cognitive damage, $75 million for baseline medical exams for retirees experiencing symptoms, and $10 million for medical research and prevention.
Each of the NFL’s 18,000 retirees would be eligible. The tentative settlement was reached after two months of court-ordered mediation.
“This is a historic agreement, one that will make sure former NFL players who need and deserve compensation will receive it, and that will promote safety for players at all levels of football,’’ said the mediator, former US district judge Layn Phillips.
The settlement was reached after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s 32 team owners directed their legal team to “do the right thing for the game and the men who played it,’’ NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash said.
“We thought it was critical to get more help to players and families who deserve it rather than spend many years and millions of dollars on litigation,’’ Pash said.
Seau, who shot himself to death last year, was among numerous former players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. Another was NFL Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who was suffering from dementia and depression and living out of his pickup truck when he died in 2002 at age 50.
“I see cases like Mike’s and say, ‘Holy mackerel, that could be me,’ ’’ said Smerlas, a contemporary of Webster’s who played 14 seasons in the NFL.
Smerlas, who played at Boston College, said he has experienced disturbing symptoms in recent years after suffering more than an estimated 100 concussions during his playing career.
“When you’re playing and you’re the biggest, baddest man on the planet, you think nothing can hurt you,’’ he said. “Now, you’re human, and you worry about your life and your family.’’
The NFL has made significant progress in recent years in reducing the risk of head trauma, in part by limiting violent contact in practices and establishing protocols that bar coaches from returning players with concussions to action until they have been medically cleared.
NFL players in previous decades received few protections. Before major breakthroughs in medical science, players with concussions were routinely sent back onto the field and often suffered additional head trauma, increasing the risk of permanent damage.
Turner, the former Patriot who is a lead plaintiff in the case, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, possibly linked to brain trauma.
“The benefits in this agreement will make a difference not only for me and my family, but also for thousands of football brothers who either need help today or may need help someday in the future,’’ Turner said.
Phillips suggested the proposed settlement would prevent a potential legal logjam with thousands of former players pursuing individual claims against the NFL.
The league would pay half the settlement in the next three years and the balance over the next 17 years.
“There is no question that this settlement will provide benefits much sooner, and at much less cost, for many more retirees, than would have been achieved through extended litigation,’’ Phillips said.
The agreement was hailed by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has pioneered research into brain damage caused by violent head injuries in sports and the military.
“The settlement includes much needed research and medical care and monitoring of former players, as well as a commitment to research funding,’’ the center’s executives said in a statement.
Senior US District Judge Anita Brody, who will decide whether to approve the agreement, commended the parties and the mediator.
“The settlement holds the prospect of avoiding lengthy, expensive, and uncertain litigation, and of enhancing the game of football,’’ Brody said.
Should the agreement be approved, it would spare the NFL from making public its files on decades of head injuries and from the backlash of seriously ill former players testifying in court. The settlement also clears the way for the league to open its regular season next week without the lawsuit hanging over the sport.
The NFL also has agreed to pay millions of dollars in legal fees to the plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the retired players will continue to pursue their case against the helmet manufacturer, Riddell, which did not agree to participate in the settlement.Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.