I have been running around today and haven’t had a tone of time to digest all the commentary about yesterday’s landmark settlement. But I did manage to catch Ian O’Connor, who was filling in for Colin Cowherd today and the 20 minutes or so I heard were, I thought, right on the money. O’Connor said that when it came to sports labor issues, he was generally always on the side of players. So am I. But this is especially so for football players, given the extraordinary toll the game takes on their bodies. Add that to the fact that NFL contracts are, for the most part, not guaranteed and that NFL owners are making even more of a killing than their counterparts in the NBA and MLB. This combination made owners’ claims in 2010-11 that they needed to lockout the players to get more favorable terms in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement especially nauseating. As I wrote three years ago, when it comes to football, and in spite of owners’ whining, the players really do bear virtually all the risk. And in this context, O’Connor found the deal reached yesterday disappointing and unfortunate, even as he expressed great sympathy with the players who were desperate to settle for some immediate relief. When it comes to the face-off between owners and players, time (and money) is always on the owners’ side.
O’Connor rightly noted that one of the biggest wins for the NFL in the settlement is that they get to avoid what would likely have been a very damaging discovery phase, including possible revelations that the NFL, at a minimum, really dragged its feet in implementing concussion and other health and safety protocols consistent with the evolving medical understanding of the long-term impact of repeated head trauma.
O’Connor said he believed that this settlement would send a message to the moms of America that football is safe for their kids to play. I don’t see that at all. The NFL has dodged a much bigger financial hit by making this settlement (and contrary to the protestations of Peter King and others, $765 million over 20 years is not a lot of money, in an enterprise that will make $200 billion or more during that same period). But it still faces a very serious long-term problem – the accumulating evidence about the dangers of football. Look, lots of America’s best athletes will continue to devote their lives to the sport. And one wonders whether a class divide in who does participate will only widen as evidence about the sport’s dangers continues to come out, especially its impact on younger, not-yet-fully-formed brains.
So while this settlement clearly solves one very big headache, I am not sure it changes the bigger long-term picture that dramatically.
An additional note: lots of folks are arguing that the players didn’t deserve anything, because “they knew the risks.” This is a vague and more or less meaningless argument. As Harry Carson told O’Connor today, players were long aware of the “physical” risks, but the “neurological” ones were not apparent until much more recently. Carson himself has suffered from severe depression and suicidal thoughts (though he certainly sounds very lucid these days). And the question that would have been adjudicated at trial was not whether the players should have known, in some general sense, what the risks of playing were. A trial would have considered the more specific factual question of what the NFL knew, when it knew it and how it responded to what it knew in terms of how it provided medical treatment to its players. If the NFL was publicly pooh-poohing concussions when privately it was in possession of mounting evidence that they were associated with serious neurological problems, it could have been massively liable. It was this possibility that the NFL was most desperate to avoid.