NEW YORK — They were Hall of Famers like Tony Dorsett, Super Bowl MVPs like Mark Rypien, and longtime backups like Don Strock.
In all, more than 4,500 retired players began suing the NFL two years ago, saying the league concealed what it knew about the long-term dangers of concussions and did not properly care for the head injuries that were long an accepted part of the game.
Under a tentative settlement announced Thursday, the NFL agreed to shell out more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, nearly all going to any former players — not just those who went to court — with dementia or other concussion-related health problems, even if the cause was not the very on-field violence that fueled professional football’s rise in popularity and profit.
The deal stipulates that it is not to be considered an admission of liability by the NFL.
“It’s a good day, because we’re getting help for those who need help,” Rypien told The Associated Press, “and a sad day, because we didn’t get this done earlier to help guys in the past.”
Rypien had two diagnosed concussions during 11 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL, including a championship with the Washington Redskins in 1992.
“I’m relieved; I don’t know about pleased. There are probably too many details to work through that we don’t all understand yet, quite frankly,” said Rypien, who has dealt with depression and difficulty remembering conversations. “But I’m relieved that both sides came together to protect the game we all love and help the players of the past and tomorrow. And to especially help those who need help right now, who have cognitive issues and those whose quality of life has been taken away.”
The settlement, unprecedented in sports, came after more than a year of discussions between the sides and two months of court-ordered mediation. Subject to approval by a federal judge, it came exactly a week before the first game of the 2013 season, removing a major legal and financial threat hanging over the sport.
U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody in Philadelphia is expected to rule on the settlement in two to three months but said it “holds the prospect of avoiding lengthy, expensive and uncertain litigation, and of enhancing the game of football.”
The settlement applies to all past NFL players and spouses of those who are deceased, a group that could total more than 20,000, and will cost the league $765 million — the vast majority of which would go to compensate retirees with certain neurological ailments — plus plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which could top $100 million. It sets aside $75 million for medical exams and $10 million for medical research.
Individual payouts would be capped at $5 million for men with Alzheimer’s disease; $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy; and $3 million for players with dementia, said lead plaintiffs’ lawyer Christopher Seeger.
“We got what we wanted, let’s put it that way,” Seeger said.
The NFL takes in revenues of more than $9 billion a year, a figure that will rise when new TV contracts start in 2014.
Commissioner Roger Goodell did not comment on the settlement.
“We thought it was critical to get more help to players and families who deserve it rather than spend many years and millions of dollars on litigation,” NFL Executive Vice President Jeffrey Pash Executive Vice President Jeffrey Pash said in a statement, the only comment issued by the league Thursday. “This is an important step that builds on the significant changes we’ve made in recent years to make the game safer.”
At a congressional hearing in October 2009, lawmakers grilled Goodell about the NFL’s concussion policies and the connection between injuries on the playing field and later brain diseases; soon afterward, the league made several changes, including revamping its return-to-play guidelines and changing the co-chairmen of its committee on concussions.
Since then, the NFL changed rules in a bid to reduce hits to the head and neck, protect defenseless players, and have neurologists clear players before they can return to games or practice after concussion.
One key rule switch that takes effect this season bars ball carriers from using the crown of the helmet to make contact with defenders.
“Football has been my life, and football has been kind to me,” said former Dallas Cowboys running back Dorsett, one of at least 10 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who filed suit since 2011. “But when I signed up for this, I didn’t know some of the repercussions. I did know I could get injured, but I didn’t know about my head or the trauma or the things that could happen to me later on in life.”
In addition to Dorsett, some higher-profile plaintiffs include Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers from dementia; former running back Kevin Turner, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease; and the family of All-Pro selection Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.
Turner, who played for the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, predicted that most of his peers would support the settlement.
“Chances are ... I won’t make it to 50 or 60,” said Turner, now 44. “I have money now to put back for my children to go to college and for a little something to be there financially.”
All former NFL players are eligible to seek care, screening or compensation, whether they suffered a documented concussion or not. The amounts they receive will be based on their age, condition and years of play. They do not need to prove that their health problems are connected to playing football.
Players’ lawyers said they expect the fund to cover the ex-athletes’ expenses up to age 65. Current players are not covered and, therefore, theoretically could bring their own lawsuits at some point.
“All of those ‘experts’ said this would be a 10-year process, but I personally believe both sides did whatever they had to, to help retired players — and at the same time, to not change the game of football as we know it,” said Craig Mitnick, one of the players’ lawyers.
If the settlement holds, the NFL won’t have to disclose internal files that might reveal what it knew, and when, about concussion-linked brain problems.
“I think it’s more important that the players have finality, that they’re vindicated, and that as soon as the court approves the settlement they can begin to get screening, and those that are injured can get their compensation. I think that’s more important than looking at some documents,” said lawyer Sol Weiss of Philadelphia, who filed the first lawsuit on behalf of former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling and a few others. Easterling later committed suicide.
Helmet maker Riddell, which was also sued, was not a party to the settlement. The company declined comment.
Eugene “Mercury” Morris, a running back who played in the NFL from 1969-76, mostly with the Miami Dolphins, wishes the case had gone to trial.
Referring to the league, he said: “These are the same people who tried to render the concept that concussions were never a problem and concussions didn’t occur in the NFL. My reaction to it is when they settle with you, it’s because they have no other choice. ... I still don’t trust them.”
Sports law experts had thought the lawsuits might cost the league $1 billion or more if they went to trial. The NFL had pushed for the claims to be heard in arbitration under terms of the players’ labor contract.
The league had also argued that individual teams bear the chief responsibility for health and safety under the collective bargaining agreement, along with the players’ union and the players themselves.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other athletes who suffered concussions have been diagnosed after their deaths with CTE, including both Seau and Easterling.
While some of those who sued suffered brain ailments, others were worried about future problems and wanted their health monitored.
“I had major concussions myself. Am I on that slippery slope? I don’t know that,” said Strock, a quarterback in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly as a backup to Dan Marino with the Miami Dolphins. “Will this help protect me in the years to come? Yes. That’s what it’s for — something there in case you need it down the road. Right now, I don’t need it, knock on wood.”