The outcome of this step remains uncertain — the NFL in August will likely file a motion to dismiss — but it will heighten awareness of the unprecedented string of lawsuits and provide an additional distraction to a sport already contending with questions about whether the game has grown too violent.
“The sheer number of players is certainly noteworthy,” said Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute and a professor at the Vermont Law School. “It’s more than the number of players in any one season.”
While the issue of excessive violence in football — dramatized this offseason by revelations of a bounty system operated by the New Orleans Saints in which players were rewarded for injuring opponents — has been in the spotlight, public opinion is beginning to form around the need for action, according to a new Washington Post poll.
More than half the public thinks the problem of concussions in the NFL needs to be dealt with, according to the survey. Still, nearly nine in 10 fans say reports about head injuries will not make much difference in their plans to watch games this fall.
Even while the physicality of the game has long been celebrated, the Post poll found that fans prefer seeing scoring plays to big hits by more than a 3-to-1 margin.
While attention paid to the issue of player safety has already brought about rule changes in the NFL in recent years, analysts say they’ll be watching for a trickle-down effect from the lawsuits brought by retired players. As the sport’s history comes into better focus, these analysts say, the future of the NFL, a league that brings in more than $9 billion in revenue annually, becomes less certain.
“One of the worst things that can happen to the NFL is if they beat these cases in court,” said Von DuBose, one of the plaintiff attorneys. “From a legal standpoint and monetary standpoint, that’s good for them. But the public perception is going to be the that the NFL escaped on a technicality and they’re unwilling to do anything to help these guys long-term.
“It’s going to further influence people. The sentiment is going bleed down to the high school and youth football ranks. Parents are going to look at the sport and say, ‘Why would I let my son play?’ ”
Chasing change, or dollars?
The first lawsuit was filed less than a year ago, and new ones have been added almost weekly since then. Pro Football Hall of Famers (Washington’s Art Monk, Indianapolis’s Eric Dickerson, Philadelphia’s Tommy McDonald, Dallas’s Tony Dorsett), Super Bowl winners (Washington’s Mark Rypien, Chicago’s Jim McMahon) and Pro Bowlers (Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis) have all attached their names to claims.