The NFL and more than 4,500 former players want to resolve concussion-related lawsuits with a $765 million settlement that would fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation and medical research, a federal judge said Thursday.
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The plaintiffs include at least 10 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett. They also include Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the family of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.
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Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia announced the proposed settlement Thursday after months of court-ordered mediation. She still must approve it at a later date.
Former NFL fullback Kevin Turner, who suffers from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, spoke in a halting voice during a teleconference Thursday as he welcomed the settlement.
"It's been a struggle to get to this point, but today … I am very proud that the NFL has decided to stand up for all the former players who are suffering from brain injuries," said Turner, 44, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots and was a plaintiff in the suits.
"You know it's easy to forget just how many men have played in the NFL throughout the years. That's why today is so important for those who are hurting. This will bring help for them.
He added: "The compensation provided in this settlement will lift the huge burden off the men who are suffering right now, both them and their and families. It will give them the peace of mind to have the best quality of life they are able to have. They'll no longer have to make decisions regarding their health based on what they can afford."
Although some might see the settlement as low, the case was complicated and not a slam-dunk for the ex-players. Meanwhile, the NFL was battling a public relations nightmare of appearing to be a bully for even fighting the case.
Players attorney Christopher Seeger acknowledged there would have been risks in litigation. The lawsuits might have been dismissed.
"This is the only program where everybody get justice. … Everybody wins," Seeger said.
He said all retired players, not just those who sued, will be eligible for a brain assessment program, and those found to have a certain level of impairment will receive a medical benefit card that be used for further testing and treatment.
Seeger said players who develop problems such as ALS, Alzheimer's or severe dementia will receive a benefit, in some cases as high as $5 million. He also said the families of players who committed suicide will be eligible for "a seven-figure payout."
Seeger said former players will not have to prove their brain conditions are linked to NFL concussions.
"You don't have to prove that your neurological problem is related to a concussion. You don't have to prove in the settlement that you sustained a concussion in the NFL," Seeger said. "You just need to be a former retired player and you're in the program."
Many former players with neurological conditions believe their problems stem from on-field concussions. The lawsuits accused the league of hiding known risks of concussions for decades to return players to games and protect its image.
The NFL has denied any wrongdoing and has insisted that safety has always been a top priority.
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The settlement likely means the NFL won't have to disclose internal files about what it knew and when, about concussion-linked brain problems. Lawyers had been eager to learn, for instance, about the workings of the league's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which was led for more than a decade by a rheumatologist.
In court arguments in April, NFL lawyer Paul Clement asked Brody to dismiss the lawsuits and send them to arbitration under terms of the players' contract. He said that individual teams bear the chief responsibility for health and safety under the collective bargaining agreement, along with the players' union and the players themselves.
One players lawyer, David Frederick, accused the league of concealing studies linking concussions to neurological problems for decades. But Seeger took the money over a peek into the NFL's files through discovery.
"It's always my preference not to continue to drag the litigation into a settlement process. It's not productive," Seeger said. "We made some pretty serious allegations in our complaint. But when we got into a point where we were looking to settle the case, I put that aside and only had one goal in negotiating and that was achieving the right result for players.''
He said the primary goal was "substantial payouts" for severely injured players and testing and care for the others.
"I know many people would have been interested in seeing everything in the NFL's files, but at this point because we achieved the result we achieved and the NFL stepped up and settled the case, it's not a big concern for me. We got what we wanted."
Brody had initially planned to rule in July, but then delayed her ruling and ordered the two sides to meet to decide which plaintiffs, if any, had the right to sue. She also issued a gag order, so it has been unclear in recent weeks whether any progress was being made.
The lawyers were due to report back to her Tuesday, but Brody instead announced in court files Thursday that the case had settled.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other concussed athletes have been diagnosed after their deaths with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Those ex-players included Seau and lead plaintiff Ray Easterling, who filed the first suit in Philadelphia in August 2011 but later committed suicide.
About one-third of the league's 12,000 former players have joined the litigation since 2011. They include a few hundred "gap" players, who played during years when there was no labor contract in place, and were therefore considered likely to win the right to sue.
In their suits, the former players allege that for decades the NFL knowingly failed to protect players from concussions. The suits allege long-term effects such as depression, dementia and suicide, such as the 2012 death of Seau and the 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bears great Dave Duerson.
More than 200 suits filed across the country against the NFL by ex-players were consolidated in Philadelphia. Brody had been expected to rule July 22 on an NFL motion to dismiss the suits. The league argued that because the players were covered by collective bargaining agreements, the matter should be settled by arbitration.
Brody ordered the mediation after what she described as an "exploratory" telephone conference with the attorneys for both sides.
"I order parties, through their lead counsel, to engage in mediation to determine if consensual resolution is possible," she wrote.
Brody appointed Layn Phillips, a retired federal judge, as mediator. Brody ordered Phillips to report to her by Sept. 3 on the results of the mediation and said she would not rule on the NFL's motion to dismiss until then.
The two sides responded with brief statements saying they would comply with the order and make no further comment.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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