The widely reported news that “the NFL has agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by more than 4500 players and their families,” as The New York Times reported this week, is welcome news for former players suffering from traumatic brain injuries and other physical and mental problems linked to the violent, hard-hitting nature of life in the NFL. The broader potential for good in this settlement, however, lies in what it may do to raise awareness about a troubling, and persistent, problem.
At the Times noted, this week’s settlement can be seen as a legal victory for the NFL. It represents less than 5 percent of the league’s annual revenues and spares the NFL both the potential expense and the certain bad publicity of an endless stream of lawsuits by individual players and their families. The paper also notes that “among the terms of the agreement is that the settlement is not to be regarded as an admission of guilt by the league.” Such clauses are not uncommon in settlements like these, but it is difficult to believe that many fans – along with players, parents and coaches at all levels of the game – won’t interpret it that way.
Frankly, that would be a good thing. The League’s reticence on the subject of concussions and TBI has long served as subtle, if perhaps unintended, encouragement for players and coaches at lower levels of the sport. Measures like the one passed here in Oregon earlier this year to encourage youth safety have often encountered resistance from some players, coaches and fans.
Oregon’s first youth sports-focused concussion law was enacted in 2009, as a recent Nugget News article notes. That measure, known as Max’s Law, grew out of the experience of a high school football player who suffered a permanent brain injury related to the game and focused particularly on athletes in officially sanctioned high school sports programs. Its provisions were broadened this year by a new piece of legislation widely known as “Jenna’s Law”. The name referring to another young athlete who suffered “at least 12 concussions in her history of club sports as a skier and soccer player,” according to Nugget News.
From my perspective as a Portland TBI and sports injury attorney Oregon’s new laws are, in many ways, more important than what happened this week in the NFL. I do not mean to discount the importance of consciousness-raising, or the valuable example that pro football can set, even indirectly. It is, however, the law itself, as enacted by our legislature and enforced in our courts, that ultimately offers the most important protection for young athletes once one gets past the first, and most important protectors: parents and coaches themselves.
NuggetNews.com: Concussion Bill Passes Oregon Legislature
New York Times: NFL Agrees to Settle Concussion Suit for $765 million