National Columnist

Hurting former players can't afford to wait, so NFL gets off cheap

Lomas Brown won, but doesn't feel like celebrating. He feels scared. He feels sad. He wonders what he and the other roughly 4,500 players who sued the NFL about head trauma really won on Thursday with the news of a $765 million settlement.

"We may be just 4,500 names to people, but you have to think that these are 4,500 names with families," Brown said. "It's not just about the names, it's about a life. And guys are really affected. You have some [litigants] that were in there for the money, but you have guys that really need the help. I know this money will help some people, but I don't know, man. I'm scared about some of these guys. They need real help. I hope they get it."

Short answer: They won't. This settlement may have a nice big number for people to marvel over -- $765 million! -- but the players didn't get what they really needed; they didn't get insurance to cover their battered brains. So many former players have lingering issues, which insurance companies correctly if coldly refer to as "pre-existing conditions," and cannot get coverage for their head trauma. And with this settlement, the NFL avoided having to get it for them.

That would have been the real victory for the players, but they couldn't afford to wait for it. Some are in such bad shape, they need money and medical care now. They'll need it down the road too, but some can't or maybe just wouldn't wait. They were offered a number --- $765 million! -- and they said yes. Some of them probably think they won. Even their lawyers are talking that way, whether they believe it or not.

"The big picture was we got immediate care to the retired players, and I think we accomplished that," the plaintiff's co-lead counsel, Christopher Seeger, told the New York Times.

But they lost a chance at so much more, and even if insurance was never going to happen -- lifetime insurance for 4,500 players with pre-existing conditions may well have bankrupted the league -- a bigger payday would have helped. But the NFL won because the NFL had the time and resources to wait out the other side. The other side wanted some money fast, so the NFL gave it to them.

Half of the settlement is due within three years. The other half will be spread over 17 years, meaning pennies on the dollar for players who need every dollar they can get. Listen to what it's like being Lomas Brown:

"Sometimes you go to the store to pick up one thing, and when you get there you can't remember why you're there," he said. "Or you want to stay in the house because you don't want to associate with people. My wife has friends come over and I want to stay upstairs because my mind is telling me that. Or when I was at ESPN and I'm carrying index cards to the table [on camera] so I won't forget what we're talking about."

(Brown doesn't work for ESPN anymore. He says he was let go a few days after that publicized meeting between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and ESPN executives, the one where the league reportedly pressured ESPN to disassociate itself from a PBS investigation on concussions. "I don't know if it's related," Brown said. "I really don't.")

Brown will be eligible for some of that $765 million. Payouts from a fund measured at $675 million will be awarded on an as-needed basis, with an individual maximum of $5 million. Sounds big, but do the math. If 100 players require the full amount -- and that feels like a conservative estimate given that head trauma has been linked to homelessness (Mike Webster), suicide (Junior Seau and Dave Duerson to name just two) and catastrophic dementia (John Mackey) -- that's $500 million. That would leave $175 million for the other 4,400 players.

That's less than $40,000 each for players with lifetime ailments and, in some cases, no insurance.

Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea told me in 2011 that his NFL insurance retired when he did in 1983. "No health coverage," he said. "No disability. No nothing."

Bethea considered himself one of the lucky ones because he had worked for Anheuser-Busch as a salesman during the offseason -- his 1968 rookie salary: $15,000 -- and he kept that job, and its benefits, when he retired. He remembers the $93,000 bill that came in the mail for one of his 13 surgeries. He had Anheuser-Busch insurance to cover it.

"What about the players who didn't have a job like I had after they retired [from the NFL]?" Bethea said. "A lot of guys couldn't find that kind of work. A lot of guys couldn't work. I was one of the lucky ones."

Former players need the money today. That's why this case is over. That's why the NFL won, whether it looks that way or not. While $765 million is a big number, $10 billion is a lot bigger, and that's reportedly how much the NFL generates every year. Multiply that by the 20 years the league has to make good on its settlement and that's $200 billion -- of which the league will pay out just $765 million. Divided by 32 teams, that's $24 million per team spread over 20 years. Pennies on the dollar.

The math doesn't work, but time was working against the retired players. They took what they could get because they needed to get it now.

Former Eagles and Patriots fullback Kevin Turner, 44, is among the litigants. He has had ALS for more than three years -- the average life expectancy is two to five years -- and told the Times he spends $100,000 annually on medical bills.

"There will always be people who said there should have been more," Turner told the Times, "but they are probably not the ones with ALS and at home."

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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