(Reuters) - A federal judge gave final approval on Wednesday to a settlement in a lawsuit brought by about 5,000 former National Football League players who accused the league of covering up the dangers of concussions.
The settlement, approved by Judge Anita Brody, includes allowing for monetary awards of up to $5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma and could cost the league $1 billion over 65 years.
NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said the league, with $10 billion in annual revenues, looked forward “to implementing the terms of the settlement and continuing to work with our players, coaches and medical staffs to enhance the safety” of football.
But payments could be held up indefinitely if any player who is part of the settlement files an appeal. If there are no appeals, players could begin to see benefits from the settlement this summer.
The NFL is accused of covering up the dangers of concussions to keep players on the field. The league and the players union estimate that 30 percent of former players will develop brain conditions like Alzheimer’s or a less debilitating form of dementia.
Concussions have become a major issue for America’s most popular sports league, causing some players to cut short their careers, including Chris Borland, a 24-year-old linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, who recently retired over concerns about long-term head injuries.
“This is clearly a tremendous moment for the NFL retired player community,” Christopher Seeger, co-lead counsel for the players, told a teleconference.
“With over 99 percent participation, it’s clear that the retired player community overwhelmingly supports this agreement and is eager to begin taking advantage of its benefits.”
In February, Brody, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, refused to accept a proposed $765 million settlement between the league and the retired players over concerns there was not enough money to cover the 65-year settlement.
Both sides reworked the deal, which is now uncapped. Among the other changes is a provision giving players credit for time they played in the NFL Europe.
‘WHAT MATTERS NOW IS TIME’
In her opinion approving the settlement, Brody noted that the retired players would have faced significant hurdles if the case had gone to trial. Only about 200 players opted out of the proposed settlement.
“As a result of the settlement, retirees and their families will be eligible for prompt and substantial benefits and will avoid years of costly litigation that – as Judge Brody’s comprehensive opinion makes clear – would have an uncertain prospect of success,” Pash said.
“What matters now is time, and many retired players do not have much left,” said Kevin Turner, a former running back for the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots who is part of the class-action settlement.
“I hope this settlement is implemented without delay so that we can finally start helping those in need.”
The deal calls for baseline medical exams for retired NFL players. It also calls for monetary awards for diagnoses of ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and certain cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease set off by repeated head trauma.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Additional reporting by Dan Kelley, Suzannah Gonzales and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney