BILL DWYRE

NFL dodges a bullet in proposed concussion settlement

The league has both caved and won: Some estimates placed its potential liability at a far greater monetary sum.

It's nice that retired NFL players will finally get some compensation for years of head-banging in games and debilitating health in the years after.

Something is always better than nothing, and $765 million is certainly better than nothing.

Curly Morrison's reaction was probably typical. Also understandable. When called and told Thursday that the settlement averages about $170,000 per player, though amounts will vary greatly, Morrison said, "That's a tremendous difference. I never expected that."

Morrison is 86. He lives in Murrieta now. He played for Ohio State, the Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns. He was a Rose Bowl most valuable player and is in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. He has been a leader in attempts by retired players to get their due from the NFL, to get needed medical benefits not previously funded and pensions that were more than token payments.

He has done well in health and finances. His efforts were for other players who weren't as fortunate in either area.

So he was part of the consolidated legal action against the NFL, one of the estimated 4,500 former players whose concussion lawsuit was based on a simple premise that the NFL has known for a long time, and thrived because of it. That premise is that its game nurtured violence and those who played it were never properly warned of that magnitude.

His delight at the news also turned quickly to caution.

"I'm delighted," he said, "but I better get home and study the details."

There are lots of those, many of which will remain open to further legal wrangling for years.

The bottom line is that the NFL both caved and won. It is nothing if not business-savvy. Pay now or possibly be put out of business later.

Some estimates had the liability of this players' suit running well into the billions of dollars for the NFL. That included years of fighting in the courts, with a decent chance they'd lose, anyway. There were just too many compelling stories for the NFL to overcome, too many of our once-heroic players becoming broken-down old men. The NFL was losing public opinion, the ultimate defeat.

The league will characterize this as a further step in its ongoing desire to make the game better and safer. Baloney. The only way to make the game safer is to take away all the hits and action and violence that make it more entertaining, and, of course, better.

Nor with this did the NFL have to admit to any liability. Who, us? We had no idea all those head-on crashes would make our players drooling and helpless in later years. We just wanted to hand out $765 million out of the goodness of our heart.

No admission of guilt? How about that $765 million?

Lost in the visions of sugar plums and dollar signs is that this is not yet a done deal. Anita Brody, a federal judge in Pennsylvania, responded to a request by the NFL to drop the case — the usual strategy in such things — by appointing a mediator. That was former U.S. District Judge Layn Phillips, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Irell & Manella. Brody's final OK to Phillips' settlement could take as long as nine months, so the clock doesn't start ticking on any NFL check-writing until then.

The $765 million and the simple-arithmetic $170,000 average per retired player are also a slippery slope. Families of players who have committed suicide in the aftermath of brain injuries may get as much as $5 million. Other health conditions, including Lou Gehrig's disease and dementia, will also be eligible for seven-figure payouts.

That would seem to significantly reduce the pot for others.

Also, with payments estimated to be spread out for as much as the next 17 years, isn't that $765 million even more of a bargain for the NFL? Think of it as one of those huge baseball contracts — painful to the owner, but less so when spread over many years.

Will $765 million be little more than another cable network's rights fees to get in on the action, which will be more of the same head-banging?

The NFL did well here. It dodged a huge bullet. It eliminated future liability questions in key areas, and to key people. The NFL eventually wants a team in Los Angeles. It's just good business. Would a smart businessman like Phil Anschutz sign into a league knowing there might be a multibillion-dollar bill coming soon?

Now the NFL has left the ball in the colleges' court, maybe even the high schools'. Is the NCAA next? Will somebody in the college game, left badly injured, see all the green stuff floating around and take that NFL's $765 million as legal inspiration?

Football is a violent game. The NFL just monetized that.

Then it took its ball and went home, with nary a worry about its future and a good slogan it can chuckle about as it watches from afar.

Who's got next?

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

CHICAGO

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