The recent NFL settlement will pay $685 million into a pool to compensate former players suffering neurological injury from football-induced head trauma. At first blush, the deal seems just like so many other settlements: an uneasy compromise by both sides to avoid the unknown risks of the courtroom. Is the settlement fair? That depends largely on evidence of the NFL’s accountability that now remains private, combined with evaluation of the nature and extent of the specific injuries suffered by former players, which is largely unknown and likely to remain so long into the future.
The settlement, however, does clearly reveal a few important points. The NFL’s willingness to reach a settlement suggests it had serious concerns about revealing what it knew about the effects of head trauma and the reasons it apparently did not reveal its knowledge to players and the public. If the NFL had this knowledge and put players at risk by withholding it, then the NFL is legally and morally responsible for players’ neurological injuries, which could expose the NFL to significant civil liability. Settling the lawsuit enabled the NFL to close the chapter on this issue, avoiding a potential public relations nightmare and a possibly far higher damages award.