NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
There is no other way to put it but the NFL is Rollo Tomasi. The NFL always gets away with it. Evidence abounds that the NFL has been running a concussion assembly line for decades. But now that it has settled its high-profile concussion lawsuit with 4,500 ex-player plaintiffs for $765 million, there will be no discovery process. We will never hear what the NFL knew and when it knew it. We will never hear if its top neurologists had information that might actually be worth the public’s knowing as we move forward, so we can make informed decisions about whether we want our own children playing football. We will never hear, because the Teflon dons in the NFL office now have this sealed up tighter than Ft. Knox. And all it cost was $765 million.
Sports Illustrated senior writer and NFL lickspittle Peter King immediately took to Twitter to blast those criticizing the sum, saying, “I love everyone calling $765 million chump change.” The more, however, you look at the figure, the more chumpish it appears. As Sports on Earth’s Patrick Hruby notes in his excellent breakdown of the agreement, this marks less than 10 percent of the NFL’s $9 billion in annual revenue and far below the estimates of $2–10 billion that many were saying it would cost to make the lawsuit go away. In addition, half of the $765 million will be paid in the first three years. The second half of the sum will be paid out over seventeen years. That comes out to just over $700,000 per team, or the annual salary of a decent place kicker. And the coup de grâce, even though some of the money is earmarked for players with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), the NFL doesn’t have to admit any liability whatsoever. In other words, the NFL will help players with brain diseases for which it doesn’t need to take any accountability.
As Hruby writes, this is “like Goldman Sachs paying a record $550 million Securities and Exchange Commission fine—a whopping four percent of the firm’s $13.4 billion profit in 2009—to walk away otherwise unscathed from its central role in the subprime mortgage meltdown and subsequent tanking of the world economy.”
In many respects, it is worse than the Goldman Sachs deal. The NFL gets to take care of this just in time before the start of the season, removing the event’s shadow over the first Sunday in September. It is effectively indemnified from further litigation from any of the players in the class action suit, like the families of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson: players who took their own lives with bullets in the heart so their brains could be studied for post-concussion damage. The league is providing a convenient narrative shift for its number-one broadcast partner, ESPN, under fire this week for pulling out of the PBS documentary partnership on “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.” And most conveniently, it doesn’t have to make an argument in open court—an extremely valid argument —that many of these head injuries may have occurred in Pop Warner, high school and college football, which would freak out parents across the country. The real losers in this case are us: the people. Football is the closest thing to a national pastime that we have. Parents have the right to know—like with lead paint, or asbestos or genetically modified food—just how dangerous this pastime happens to be. They have the right to “informed consent.” We are being denied discovery on the reams of research NFL-hired neurologists have been generating over the last twenty years. We are being denied the facts. The NFL this week bought our ignorance and bought it on the cheap.
Adding insult to injury, now you have the worst sports columnists in the USA carrying water for this rotten deal. Before the ink was even dry on the settlement, CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco mocked the players taking part in the lawsuit—saying they “didn’t deserve it”. No mention that maybe players would have made different decisions with their lives if they had been told that “getting their bell rung” could mean dementia, ALS, or suicide in their future. Prisco then asked us all to get perspective about what really matters. He wrote, “Without the NFL, I wouldn’t have a job. Nor would a lot of people. Without the NFL, what would you do on fall Sundays? Without the NFL, television sports, and the advertising that goes with it, would be in trouble. Without the NFL, fantasy sports would be a wasteland.”
If the argument is that without the NFL, Mr. Prisco wouldn’t have a job, that is one of the more powerful arguments for prohibition a person could possible make.
But the most important takeaway is that the NFL is going to get away with it. If this was Goldman Sachs, people would be picking up pitchforks and torches right now. If this was Goldman Sachs, Occupy Wall Street would be a pebble in the pond compared to the anger that would erupt. But it’s the National Football League. It is too big to fail not only because it generates so much cash, but because so much psychological baggage about Americana, manhood and civic pride are inextricably tied with it. The NFL will get away with this because the public wants the NFL to get away with it more than they want the truth. The NFL is Rollo Tomasi. But we are its willing accomplices.
Dave Zirin documents the journalists inside the ESPN machine willing to speak out on the concussion documentary.