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Is the NFL's Settlement of the Concussion Class Action Lawsuit a Victory or Setback for Brain Injury Awareness?

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Answer by Jonathan Brill, Start-up specialist

This should be seen as a major victory for concussion awareness, the former players, the current players, the NFL, and fans.

This is by far the largest judgment ever awarded by a pro sports league to its players for long term injuries they may have suffered while playing the sport. All athletes in all major sports are, in general, subjecting their bodies to irreparable damage that will haunt them into old age. We know this, they know this, the leagues know this, and very little is said or done about it. This is not just true of football, although its more obvious and with the possible exception of pro hockey, more severe than the other sports. This is especially unfortunate because the labor agreement in the NFL is the most management friendly of all pro sports, contributing to a situation where 75 percent of NFL players are bankrupt within a few years of exiting the league. Playing pro football can leave a player broken, battered, and bankrupt. There are a number of problems with that, but I'd argue the most immediate is that players who need medical treatment for long term, non-obvious issues, the kind that come with brain trauma, might be unable to afford it. That is the most immediate, solvable problem, and this money will go a long way towards fixing that.

Every constituency wants to see football find a way to survive this and is invested in the NFL doing well and succeeding. This settlement meets those goals. Although the NFL does not have to admit liability or that football causes Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), it's agreed to pay $765m to help solve CTE related problems, including some preventative R&D. It's difficult to see how the NFL could have admitted liability and that football directly caused CTE without permanently harming the brand of the NFL and football. Fans of football and the NFL, including former and current players, did not want this. Football has changed dramatically over the last 100 years and the danger of CTE is causing it to change again. The rule changes over the last few seasons, increased awareness and testing of CTE, reduced exposure to events that could cause CTE, like full pads practices (due to a concession to the players union) have already yielded very positive results, and we should expect more of the same. Traditionalists will grouse about the change, as traditionalists always do, but those of us watching this issue closely get that the NFL will have to move further away from full contact to achieve an equilibrium where its players can perform superhuman athletic feats without subjecting themselves to the equivalent of a high speed car crash every few minutes.

This will put far more pressure on other sports leagues, including the NCAA which, by virtue of all the advancements in the NFL recently, is now much less safe for football players. This is ironic of course because a) most NCAA football players will never go on to play professionally, and b) NCAA football players are not compensated with more than scholarships, and even those are not guaranteed in the case of injury, such as suspension of play due to suffering head trauma. This settlement has set a precedent that football players should expect to be educated about the risks of CTE, steps to prevention, and recourse for negligence. It will also put a further spotlight on sports like hockey and soccer to address the issue directly.

Professional football is an incredibly violent sport and its players are subjected to all kinds of bodily harm. We can talk about the NFL as an organization and how it obstructed progress on understanding CTE and how players could reduce their risk of suffering from it, but that sounds a lot like blaming a big bureaucratic billion dollar corporation for being a big bureaucratic billion dollar corporation. We could talk about the ongoing risks faced by players wearing space age body armor running into each other at full speed, but I believe there's enough progress in changing the game that the risks associated with playing pro football will continue to drop dramatically.

Football is a great game. But in recent years, reasonable people (like me) have grown increasingly weary of seeing young men suffer permanent injury for playing it, and would have trouble letting our children play it. I see this settlement as the most significant signal to date that people in a position to change the game to address these problems have acknowledged them and will fix the game rather than letting it die. As a fan of past and present players of the game, I'm happy for them.

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