A federal judge gave approval Wednesday to a lawsuit that has the potential to award nearly $1 billion to former National Football League players affected by concussions.
The league expressed delight — despite some player disgruntlement — that the 65-year deal, which it says will benefit thousands who are struggling among the league’s roughly 22,000 current retirees, got the nod from U.S. District Judge Anita Brody.
Assuming no appeals are filed, the benefits process would open this summer, the players’ attorneys said. But they warned that appeals would delay that process for months, if not years.
And that might be the rub. The NFL wanted the agreement to cover all of the league’s retired players, but more than 200 have opted out so they can continue to battle the league in court.
Critics believe the settlement, first agreed upon 20 months ago, allows the NFL to exclude too many ailing players and lacks impact because there is no minimum payout requirement, other than $112 million to the attorneys who orchestrated the deal.
Paul Krause, a Hall of Fame safety for the Vikings, declined to be part of the settlement.
“The older players didn’t have a chance,” said Krause, 73. “I opted out because there’s nothing in there for the old guys.
“Once you scratch below the surface, a lot of guys should have opted out. There’s no help there for us.”
The NFL has said it expects about 6,000 of current retired players to develop Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) or dementia. Under the settlement, payouts would average $190,000, with younger players with specific diagnoses getting up to $5 million.
Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president and general counsel, said: “As a result of the settlement, retirees and their families will be eligible for prompt and substantial benefits and will avoid years of costly litigation that — as Judge Brody’s comprehensive opinion makes clear — would have an uncertain prospect of success.”
In a 132-page opinion, Brody called the deal “fair, reasonable and adequate.” Monetary awards will be determined on a sliding scale based on a player’s seasons in the NFL, age at diagnosis and other criteria.
The principal concern for critics is that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) symptoms in living players won’t be covered, and that there is no compensation for future diagnoses of CTE. There is not yet an acceptable method of testing for CTE in a living brain.
“The league thinks they’re going to outlive all of us, so they really don’t have to care,” Krause said. “When a guy played 10, 15 years in the league and he’s 72 or 73 years old and he has CTE, his future is not really too bright. And they don’t care.”
Former Vikings guard Brent Boyd, part of the settlement, still criticized it Wednesday, calling the league “sinister.”
“It was very perilous to opt out,” said Boyd, 58. “Some of us aren’t going to live long enough to fight the NFL. And we don’t have the money to fight the NFL. They have skyscrapers filled with attorneys and all the time in the world. It all comes back to a phrase I coined in Congress years ago: ‘Delay, deny and hope we die.’ That’s the NFL’s unofficial strategy for dealing with guys who built this league.
“I am disappointed because it’s not a concussion settlement. It’s a Lou Gehrig’s settlement. A Parkinson’s settlement. The guys with all the symptoms of CTE, their families aren’t going to get squat.”
Brody is expected to have jurisdiction over the cases of plaintiffs who opted out of the settlement, and will likely have cases overturned by appeals court revert to her. In a trial, the players would also have had to prove that the concussions they received in the NFL led to their current conditions, a major hurdle given the lack of documentation. Under the current deal, players will not have to document that they had any concussions to be eligible for a payment, the lawyers said.
Ex-players who want to file a claim must do so within 180 days of receiving notice the settlement is in effect.
Former Vikings linebacker Matt Blair, 64, has been the face of the lawsuit locally because of his willingness to talk openly about his battle with possible early onset dementia. Blair played despite concussions, and was even hospitalized midweek between starts after a particularly severe concussion.
“I’ve been paying the bills to get things checked on for a while now — if I can get that covered, that would help,” he said Wednesday. “I know the players today have all the money they could need. I don’t have the kind of money they have today.
“It’s OK, as long as they help me pay the bills and make sure my wife and family is taken care of if anything was to happen to me.”
News services contributed to this report.