Mixed Feelings Over N.F.L. Concussion Settlement

New York Times

Mixed Feelings Over N.F.L. Concussion Settlement

By: SCOTT FUJITA; Published: September 2, 2013

I expected a settlement to come at some point. What I didn’t expect was to feel so oddly conflicted about it.

Barton Silverman/The New York Times; Scott Fujita played in the N.F.L. for 11 seasons

Barton Silverman/The New York Times; Scott Fujita played in the N.F.L. for 11 seasons

Last Thursday, the N.F.L. and the more than 4,500 plaintiffs involved in a consolidated concussion lawsuit agreed to settle their differences and, pending the approval of a judge, were prepared to put the dispute behind them. Good news, right? Certainly a win for everyone involved? I’m not so sure.

In my last few years as an active player, between lockout negotiations and the so-called bounty scandal involving the New Orleans Saints, I received an unexpected, accelerated education in the basic mechanics of settlement discussions. I’m by no means an expert, but I learned that there really aren’t many surprises. Show each side the perceived holes in its argument, provide an ample threat that invokes a dash of fear, then dangle a carrot that each party finds hard to resist.

What we saw Thursday was no different. There was the possibility of an expedited discovery process, closed-door arbitration and the exclusion of a chunk of former players. And I’m guessing there were not-so-subtle reminders that causation — proving a plaintiff’s current health problems were directly caused by a head injury sustained while playing in the N.F.L. — is a heavy burden to meet in a court of law.

Pair all of that with the chance to close the door on a public-relations nightmare and an opportunity to ease the suffering of so many former players and their families sooner rather than later, and you’ve got a deal.

I wasn’t a part of the lawsuit. I was approached about it, as I’m sure every player who retired in recent months had been. But I could not, in good conscience, participate and risk watering down a potential award for so many people who are legitimately suffering. There are numerous former players experiencing a wide range of brain-related health issues. Right now, I’m not really one of them.

I imagine most N.F.L. clubs jumped at the opportunity to settle for roughly $1.5 million a year for the next 20 years. It’s fairly easy to cover that expense. Just pay 15 players $100,000 less each year in salary. Or raise in-stadium beer prices a few bucks. Problem solved.

No apologies made. No skeletons revealed. Back to business as usual.

A very worthwhile investment.

But is this not an issue of public safety, especially when it comes to children? Did the plaintiffs not deserve to discover exactly what was known by the N.F.L. about head injuries, and when? What about the public?

In recent years, there has been so much energy exhausted attempting to vilify players for delivering the big hits they have been forever encouraged to dish out. They were asked to change the way they had been taught to play the game, almost overnight, and most are trying to adapt. In the N.F.L.’s defense, players must adapt. But now former players will not even get to ask questions of someone like Dr. Elliot Pellman, the longtime chairman of the league’s research committee on concussions.

Actually, Pellman had no real background in neurology, which is not a great starting point, and he once claimed to have a medical degree from Stony Brook when, in fact, he attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico.

His performance dealing with the issue in the N.F.L. has been less than stellar. Indeed, it is troubling that Pellman continues to be even tangentially connected to the league. (He refers to himself as an adviser to the league on the Web site for his private practice.)

Kevin Mawae, a former president of the players union and a man I deeply respect, said he never had any interest in joining the suit, but he did want some answers. “Information is power,” he said, and because the league will not have to give up that information in court, they “retain that power.”

What will become of concussion management? Do we continue to exercise caution with players who may have sustained a traumatic brain injury? Or, because there is no more looming litigation, are we right back to where things were before Congress held hearings in 2009: get the guy back on the field as soon as possible, at any cost? Let’s hope not.

Still, some perspective is called for. I’m thrilled for Kevin Turner, a former player and a plaintiff who is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. I lost my uncle to A.L.S., and one of my dearest friends and former teammates, Steve Gleason, received a diagnosis of A.L.S. in January 2011. I’ve seen how brutal and debilitating this disease is. I have followed Turner’s story closely, and he inspires me.

The proposed settlement agreement will potentially relieve a tremendous financial and medical burden for Turner. And this will happen now, instead of 5, 10, maybe 15 years from now, when he may no longer be with us. The settlement is a huge win for the former players like Turner and their families. We must not lose sight of that. It’s easy to tell someone to hold out for more when it’s not your livelihood at risk.

These deals are complicated and multilayered, and they affect everybody differently. It’s easy to feel conflicted. And it’s not always easy to declare a winner or a loser.

In late July 2010, an agreement was reached in principle to end the N.F.L. lockout. The union’s player representatives were asked to present the deal to their teams and take a vote on whether to ratify the agreement. I was not entirely thrilled with the deal at the time. When I raised questions, I imagine some felt that I was trying to prevent the lockout from ending, but I just wanted to make sure it was the right deal, and I wanted to be diligent about the ratification process.

When I called a meeting with my Cleveland Browns teammates to outline the main points of the agreement, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of simply “selling” the deal. I wanted them to make an informed decision. I gave them what I considered the good, the bad and the ugly. When I finished, one of my younger teammates said: “Scott, you’ve been there through everything and we trust your opinion. What would you recommend we do? Accept the deal or not?”

As I looked at the group of men in front of me, one of the youngest teams in the league, I was not sure what to say. These guys just wanted to begin their careers and play ball. Would it have been irresponsible of me to deny them that right?

So I responded, “If you guys would like to get to work and start making money, then I recommend you take the deal.”

They voted unanimously to approve.

Full column at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/sports/football/mixed-feelings-over-nfl-concussions-settlement.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&ref=sports

Filed in: Press Room, Writing • Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

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Scott Fujita

Scott Fujita was born in Ventura, California on April 28, 1979. He was a three-sport standout at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, CA before heading to the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with Honors in Political Science and earned a Masters degree in Education.

Fujita has played in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns. Read more