|HOF WR Art Monk, pictured here in 1991, leads one of several lawsuits filed against the NFL. (Getty Images)|
We're a few years away, but it's coming. It's happening, and there's nothing any of us can do about it. In a few years courts will start hearing class-action lawsuits filed by retired players against the NFL. And if that first wave of lawsuits ends badly for the league -- with precedent-setting rulings that the NFL owes millions of dollars in damages -- the jig's up. The game's over. The NFL is finished.
Note that I didn't write, "The NFL as we know it is finished." I didn't write that, because it's worse than that.
The NFL. Finished.
I realize I'm describing the indescribable, but I'm not imagining the unimaginable. It's pretty damn easy to see how bad this could be, because while the NFL can afford bad publicity and a tough union and the occasional suicide by a beloved former star, what it can't afford is the millions -- hundreds of millions, easy -- it would lose should its former players start winning these lawsuits.
With more lawsuits filed each week.
And there's a lot more retired players out there, watching these lawsuits. Waiting. With an attorney on speed dial. I promise you that.
This is the NFL's Big Tobacco moment, only worse, because people aren't literally addicted to football like they're addicted to smoking -- and because the NFL doesn't generate billions in tax revenues. Financially speaking, this country needs the tobacco industry. We love football, but we don't need it like we need tobacco.
And things have gotten pretty bad for Big Tobacco. A pack of cigarettes is at least $6 in most states, and $14 in New York. Know one reason why? Because when four of the country's largest tobacco companies were hit with what's known as the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, forcing them to pay 46 states a minimum of $206 billion over 25 years, it set off a lawsuit frenzy that continues to this day. Damaged smokers everywhere realized their suffering was worth money. And they lawyered up.
So this is a big "if," but it's an "if" that cannot be ignored: If one of these first few trials goes badly for the NFL, damaged football players everywhere will realize their suffering is worth money, and they'll lawyer up. And they'll win, just like smokers keep winning. A smoker in Los Angeles was awarded $100 million in 2001. Another in Florida won $39 million in 2009. It continues to this day as a class-action lawsuit winds through Canadian courts, with plaintiffs seeking up to $27 billion.
The future of the NFL comes down to this: Will it lose any of the early, precedent-setting lawsuits? The NFL will say it shouldn't be held responsible that former players are breaking down physically. Professional football players are adults, the NFL will argue; they had to know the risks of banging repeatedly into each other. And that's a compelling argument.
The players will argue that the NFL knew about the life-altering risks of brain trauma decades ago but didn't warn them. If an NFL linebacker knew he was risking dementia at age 50, maybe he would have sought two or three times more than the average NFL salary of $90,000 in 1981. And surely he and his fellow players would have bargained for better post-career medical benefits than the nearly nonexistent coverage some receive today. That's the argument players will make -- and that, too, is a compelling argument.
Scared, my fellow football fan? Well, not everyone agrees with this premise. Hell, not even the lawyer for Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk -- who filed a lawsuit last week against the NFL and the NFL's helmet-maker, Riddell, over his "short term memory loss, headaches and speech difficulties" -- thinks the NFL will go away.
"No, I don't see that," said Tom Girardi, Monk's lead attorney. "If the NFL loses these cases, it doesn't mean the NFL has to write million-dollar checks [to each plaintiff] a week from Tuesday. Each player has his own separate complaint -- some are really hurt, can't work, and some have much less injury -- and the idea is to protect the players if they do have a loss. Give them protection over period of time, but don't kill the league."
That's the one way of looking at it, from an attorney who wants no part of being associated with the death of this country's most popular sport. Here's another, from a player within that sport: "In another 20 or 30 years, I don't even think football will be in existence anymore." That's from Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who uttered that doomsday scenario last week on SportsRadio 610 in Houston.
There's also the helmets.
See, helmets are worn to protect the head of the player wearing it. As we all know, helmets haven't done it. Not well enough. Nothing against helmet makers -- I'm not sure it's possible to protect an NFL player's brain from all those nasty collisions -- but retired players have been diagnosed with dementia at rates five to 19 times higher than the general population. So the question for courts to decide is this: Should the makers of those helmets be held responsible? If that answer is "yes," then it's like I said:
Football is finished.
Because even if the NFL thinks it can survive the lawsuits by using the product on the field to stave off bankruptcy, you can't play football without a football helmet. And if helmet makers are going to be sued, they'll find something else to make, like lawn chairs.
This is all worst-case stuff, and I don't want it to happen. But sit here and pretend it can't happen? I can't do that. What I can do is watch the legal proceedings carefully, and keep track of the lawsuits filed. And what do you know? Another lawsuit was filed in the past few days. It was the one led by Monk.
Monk was joined by 62 other former players in his suit. All told, more than 2,000 players have filed almost 75 complaints against the NFL or Riddell. What's lifelong brain trauma worth to a middle-aged man? A million bucks? Multiply a million bucks times 2,000 players. OK, I'll do it for you: That's $2 billion.
And that would be just the start. After that, more lawsuits. More billions.
No more NFL.