As the National Football League becomes increasingly controlled by the almighty dollar, “concussion” has become the dirtiest of words. While players of yesteryear were simply told to dust off the proverbial cobwebs and get back in the game, league protocol now mandates a battery of in-game evaluations that often preclude players from returning to the field. Moreover, the NFL has attempted to legislate especially problematic hits out of the game by levying both steep fines and harsh penalties against players caught tackling with the crown of their helmet.
While one would be hard-pressed to find fault with the league’s newfound emphasis on concussion prevention, the motivations behind the change have been undoubtedly self-serving. As is the case with nearly everything related to professional sports, the NFL’s new safety-first approach has been compelled by the threat of losing money.
Over the last several years, a number of former NFL players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”), a degenerative brain condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Several, including former defensive stalwarts Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, were diagnosed with CTE post-mortem, having tragically ended their own lives. For these men, the neurological effects of repeated blows to the head simply became too much to bear. According to his wife, Easterling suffered from both depression and insomnia in the years following his retirement from the NFL. As the decades went on, Easterling became afflicted with dementia, ultimately losing his ability to focus, organize thoughts, and relate to others.
Before his suicide, Easterling, a veteran of eight NFL seasons, was one of seven former players to file a lawsuit against league. Easterling’s suit, the first class-action of its kind, raised allegations that the NFL not only failed to properly treat players for concussions, but that the league also attempted to conceal any information linking tackle football to traumatic brain injuries. Over time, thousands of other former players joined the original seven, bringing the total number of plaintiffs to 4,500.
In August, the two sides reached a settlement agreement in which the NFL will pay $765 million dollars to not only the 4,500 named plaintiffs, but to all retired players with neurological problems. However, despite this staggering sum, many have viewed the settlement as a as a victory for the league, as such a settlement precludes the possibility of further liability and the need for an accompanying discovery phase—a process which could have proven extremely damaging had the case moved forward. Moreover, among the terms of the agreement is a stipulation that the NFL’s decision to settle should not be interpreted as an admission of guilt.
For an industry raking in over $10 billion of annual revenue, staggered payouts totaling $765 million seems like an exceptionally small penance. However, regardless of whether the league has sufficiently answered for their wrongs, many positives have come out of the ordeal. By bringing the issues surrounding concussions to light, former players like Ray Easterling have managed to launch a national discussion that can only serve to mitigate a significant problem that has gone overlooked for far too long. Today, more than ever, concussions are being properly regarded as a serious threat to professional and amateur athletes alike.