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The NFL Pays Up Over Head Trauma, and Wins Again

In your high school or college experience, did the Student Council ever institute any truly ground-breaking, long-lasting reforms that extracted real concessions from the administration and made life substantially better for students? Probably not. Part of the problem is that students are younger and less experienced and are usually not the ones paying. It also isn’t their full-time job to “govern” students, whereas that is precisely the administration’s full-time job. But another imbalance is the simple, unsolvable structural problem that, in most cases, any given student is only a student for four years (“seven years of college down the drain,” complains Bluto Blutarsky, but I think we can agree he’s an exception). So the drive to invest real time and resources in making things better, as well as the necessary institutional memory, just isn’t there.

This is one way to understand the settlement yesterday in a class-action lawsuit featuring more than 4500 retired National Football League players suing the league for allegedly covering up what it knew about football’s dangers to long-term neurological health. (A federal judge still must approve the settlement.) It is debatable whether this was a victory for the plaintiffs—certainly I am not going to tell a retired linebacker with deteriorating memory that he is wrong to take the money; although earlier estimates pegged a future settlement in the few-billion-dollar range, the process could easily have dragged on many more years.

What is indisputable is that this was a gigantic win for the NFL. The NFL is paying $765 million. There are many ways to envision just how small this is. For starters, consider that the amount is being paid out over 20 years—half in the first three—whereas the NFL brings in $9 billion in revenue every year. Or consider that the NFL admitted no guilt, culpability, wrongdoing, or any of that. Or that it was spared what could have been a damaging discovery process as the case goes forward. Or that it gets to settle all of this before the potentially damning League of Denial book/documentary drops in October, before a long weekend, and most important of all before the beginning of another season (six days away!).

The big problem is that the vast majority of the suit’s stakeholders—the people who actually would have stood to benefit from extensive discovery, from the NFL setting aside more than $10 million for “research and education,” and eventually from, perhaps, a finding or a precedent of wrongdoing that could have paved the way for future settlements—were not a party to the suit. Current players weren’t. Young players weren’t. Future players weren’t. The retired players understandably wanted to get the money they feel they deserve and, in no doubt many cases, actually need. And current NFL players are no doubt more focused on getting one more big contract as opposed to thinking about this.

This all flows from the cartel-like authority the NFL exerts over those who wish to make money by playing football. And that authority in term flows partly from the general balance between capital and labor in America in 2013 and partly from the average NFL career being 3.5 years—a semester shorter than a typical stint in college.

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