There are few things more American than NFL football. But one of them is throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away. The NFL did just that on Thursday when it brokered a global settlement with more than 4,500 former professional football players in what's become known as the "concussion lawsuit," ending a months-long, off-the-field headache for the folks at 345 Park Avenue.
Don't get me wrong: the players didn't "lose" this legal battle and they had little choice but to take the money given how long the legal system can take to process complex litigation like this. And the NFL didn't "win" this deal, but they came pretty damn close.
The price to get rid of this lawsuit is an absolute basement bargain, relatively speaking. There's no way that you can ever call three-quarters of a billion -- the NFL settled with the players for $765 million total -- a bargain at least in a vacuum. But compared to the $9.5 billion the NFL generated in revenue in 2012? Anything involving the letter "m" in front of "illion" is an absolute steal for the league, a tiny leaf floating away from the money-making tree that is professional football.
The future of the NFL, in the purest business sense of the game, is safe. There was a period of a few months there where sportswriters lamented the possibility of the NFL shriveling up in a medically-induced, lawsuit-fueled shell of its former self and simply disappearing. It was always unlikely but it was never impossible. Football's a dangerous game, but it's still not nearly as risky as rolling the dice on playing out a legal battle that could blow up in your face.
Solving this lawsuit doesn't fix football's myriad issues but it does get rid of the looming disaster that would be created by losing a massive class-action lawsuit.
The league's biggest victory in the battle with its former players? The language included in the settlement that not only keeps future players from suing but it absolves the league from any admission that they ever ignored
It's right there in the principle terms of the settlement, in big, bold, underlined letters:
No Admissions of Liability or Weakness of Claims
Say whatever you want that the NFL is "basically" admitting to being at fault by paying money. And everyone can be aware that the NFL's payment to thousands of players is a de facto admission that they screwed up for years. But it's irrelevant in a court of law -- the only place where any of this technically matters -- because the settlement makes it absolutely clear that the NFL wasn't at fault.
"The settlement does not represent, and cannot be considered, an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs' injuries were caused by football," the press release reads. "Nor is it an acknowledgement by the plaintiffs of any deficiency in their case. Instead, it represents a decision by both sides to compromise their claims and defenses, and to devote their resources to benefit retired players and their families, rather than litigate these cases."
So what about future lawsuits? Here's the real beauty for the NFL -- it's going to be incredibly difficult for any football players to sue in the future. Current players? Good luck. The risks are clear and the NFL's settlement notes specifically it "will include all players who have retired as of the date on which the Court grants preliminary approval to the settlement agreement" or successors, etc.
Don't believe me? Ask Judge Lynn Phillips, the mediator for this case who helped the two parties settle -- a Q&A with her answers was helpfully included with the settlement as well.
"For a variety of reasons, the underlying theory of this lawsuit about what took place in the
past would be difficult to replicate in the future," Phillips said. "Everyone now has a much deeper and more substantial understanding about concussions, and how to prevent and manage them, than they did 20 or even 10 years ago, and the information conveyed to players reflects that greater understanding."
In addition, the labor law defenses asserted by the NFL would represent a very substantial barrier to asserting these kinds of claims going forward.
So to sum up: the NFL lobbed some pocket change at struggling former players, kept itself from admitting fault and managed to limit itself from current and future liability.
Seven days before it embarks on another months-long, billion-dollar business venture, the NFL won again, as it always does.