Concussion suit settlement demonstrates a failed two-minute drill

Mike Wise
Columnist August 29, 2013

What a great day for further memory loss and long-term suffering. What a landslide victory for Roger Goodell and the Hall of Pain Game.

When 4,500 former NFL players, greats and scrubs alike, joined the largest class-action lawsuit in American sports history — claiming memory lapses, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease and worse could have been prevented if the league cared more about their brains and bodies — I thought real, lasting change might come to football on all levels, from Pee Wee to pros.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Silly, sentimental me. I had no idea the forces of I-gotta-get-mines mentality were at work.

I had no idea the litigants who settled for $765 million — less than the value of the NFL’s least valuable franchise, the Oakland Raiders — weren’t interested in truly helping us recover from our national hurt addiction.

They wanted war reparations — now.

It would be callous today to completely dismiss the urgent medical needs of a former fullback such as Kevin Turner and others who can’t afford a brain scan, much less prescription medication. The settlement, Turner said, “will lift a huge burden off the men who are suffering right now.” He added that those who think the players were cheaply bought off aren’t the same people coping with the debilitating physical deterioration that ALS is causing him at this very minute.

The players who settled had real reasons. But let’s be clear what happened: Goodell’s lawyers took advantage of the immediate-gratification needs of the NFL’s former players, just as the league once took advantage of woozy-headed men who knew their careers might be over if they didn’t go back in the game.

The culture of violence won again.

The growing culture of safety was just laid out by Jack Tatum and James Harrison and the next headhunter lying in wait for a doe-eyed slot receiver running a crossing pattern.

Shame on the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who had the gall to trumpet the settlement as a victory because players would now receive care — care they were due years ago by a multinational conglomerate that cared about them as long as their ligaments, bones and brains worked.

This is the equivalent of a coach saying, “He shows up on time” as a quality rather than a requirement.

Big picture, we were told, this is good for everyone.

There is no big picture. Anyone who says this is the best thing for the game either needs football for his or her livelihood or is the kind of in-denial soul who masks problems with cortisone shots instead of fixing it with surgery.

“The United States of Football” is in theaters now; soon the “Frontline” PBS series will be out. Both detail the destruction of the human brain that is happening every Sunday. There was real potential for a reality show to shake up the game even further. It was called a trial or a lengthy, drawn-out settlement in which Goodell’s worst nightmare would come to fruition: the league’s former players taking the stand, unable to hide their mental deficiencies before a jury that would award them millions and millions more than they received.

But the former players who had the NFL on the ropes decided they didn’t have that kind of time. They weren’t playing for anybody’s future; they had to take care of themselves.

The big beef was always that team and league doctors failed to diagnose head injuries and in some cases ignored concussions and returned players to games despite the fact they knew how glassy-eyed they were. If you really believe none of that happened, you have never witnessed the truth of an NFL sideline in person.

Of the settlement, the most useful money is the $75 million put away for baseline brain testing over the next decade and another $10 million toward research and education, finding out what really happened to these guys on the field years ago.

And Goodell and the league deserve credit for waking up to the dangers of concussions in recent years, however late to the game they were.

But just as 9/11 families had to go before fund adjustors to prove their losses were worth anything, former players are going to have to go before claims adjustors of their own — as if they dinged their sedan side panels, as if their brain injuries are really quantifiable.

On the face of it, $765 million is a huge number. But delve deeper and find out that $206 billion was paid to smokers over 25 years by tobacco companies or learn that major breast implant manufacturers paid women who suffered auto-immune disease from silicone implants $3.4 billion.

Both the mountain of litigants in two of the country’s largest class-action settlements also faced the same, cold questioning from the other side that began with, “But you knew the dangers when you put this in your body, didn’t you?”

The concussion litigants didn’t have that kind of staying power, perseverance. They lacked the fortitude they used to play with. Some of the all-time greats and the teammates who carried water for them needed help now. They weren’t interested in helping the next generation; they wanted to get paid.

And the future of football is much poorer for it today.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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