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Big deal getting less rosy for NFL’s battered retirees

Now that baseball is done we are free to sit back and savor the merry mayhem of the National Football League although it can be argued – and will be here – that the biggest game of the season has already been played, although who won or lost surely depends on your point of view about many things.

After that curious contest, it has taken only two months for the retired cannon fodder of the NFL to wake up. Not surprisingly those aged and battered gridiron warriors are bristling. For it has become increasingly clear that the alleged “historic” settlement aimed at compensating those who’ve left the game maimed and addled is grossly inadequate, which means the boys are about to be taken for yet another ride, this one most unkind, given that it comes wrapped in a historic con-job.

In a nutshell, the deal negotiated by the NFL owners and lawyers representing their ex-players purportedly created a $765 million pot (minus fees for testing and administrative costs) from which to distribute compensation to roughly 4,500 ex-players who signed onto a law suit charging owners with deliberate deception about the long-term impact of head injuries. It was further implied that some 20,000 ex-players, including that vast majority not partaking in the law suit, would be “eligible” for payoffs, as would the estates of untold numbers of deceased players.

It sounded wonderful, although even a quick check of the math back when it was piously proclaimed in September had to immediately suggest to anyone capable of handling a calculator that such lofty claims were preposterous; that is, if more than a fraction of what was promised will be delivered. Now in November suspicions are already being realized as that fraction with a chance of meaningful compensation begins to look downright tiny.

Nothing is set in cement yet. But according to details gradually leaking from the process – as reported by the near-infallible-on-such-subjects New York Times – the terms of “eligibility” seem to be fast revising. Surprise!

It now appears, according to the Times, that only players with the “most severe” brain injuries are certain to be compensated and that the estates of players who’ve made such claims but died before 2006 will not be eligible. Such new and unexpected distinctions alone would remove many players from the comp pool. But it’s now also being implied that to be eligible for “major” payouts, players from the modern era must be diagnosed with “severe brain injury” before they reach the age of 45. If they begin to crack thereafter, apparently it don’t count, pal, or at least nowhere near as much.

Of course, still undefined and left to be determined is what distinguishes a “most severe” brain injury from one that’s only, let’s say, “a little severe,” or “severe” some days but tolerable others. And won’t the deciding of all that to the satisfaction of all concerned be some kind of circus. You can see where this business is headed: straight into the land of Jabberwocky!

It is clear that the relatively few who end up diagnosed with the most awful conditions – Lou Gehrig Disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia – would remain eligible for maximum compensation: up to $5 million, for instance, for ALS victims (unless they died before 2006). Heavier payouts also remain scheduled for those afflicted with what’s being termed “severe cognitive impairment.” But there’s no definition yet of what constitutes that miserable condition let alone how severe said impairment must be. The process of arriving at such crucial distinctions – profoundly affecting the distribution of many millions of bucks – is seen as very tricky. As ever, the devil is in the details. So what else is new?

It seems likely, at least at this early stage, that a lot of ex-players are sure to be mighty disappointed. Such ranks will constitute the significant majority, including those who can reasonably claim chronic discomfort ranging from migraines to memory loss to a life full of aches and pain much beyond the normal. It’s already clear payments for such “minor” complaints are likely to be mighty minor. Being merely punch-drunk in your old age won’t pay at this window, old Sport.

Said ranks are swelling every day, often dramatically. The other day, it was Tony Dorsett, once the superb Cowboys’ running back, who piped up to claim that he doesn’t always recognize or remember the name of the fellow he sees in the mirror. As depressing as that state of affairs may be for Mr. Dorsett, and however indisputable it may be that it is the result of the hammering he took playing the game, it may not be worth a thin dime under the terms of this dubious arrangement. You are going to hear a whole lot of squawking soon enough.

In retrospect, it’s stunning how misunderstood the settlement was when first announced. Dissent was relatively mute and scattered. Media reaction was overwhelmingly approving. Amazingly, some even argued it was far more than the owners ought to have been obliged to do. They were widely praised for their generosity, even though if you’ve been in this dodge longer than 48 hours you should know that’s a term to be sparingly used when describing most any owner of any game at any time.
How the tune has changed in just two months. As also reported by the Times, a poll of players, both active and retired, conducted by Sportsblog.com, resulted in 95 percent of the respondents declaring they believe the owners “got off cheap” while 94 percent believe the settlement was simply a business decision having nothing to do with them seeking to “do the right thing for the players,” let alone admitting to any wrong-doing or expressing regret. Looks like the lads are waking up; alas for them, it’s a bit late.

The fact of the matter is that such are the windfall riches currently engulfing the NFL: A $765 million settlement for an issue that had threatened to shake the league to its roots and might have been a proverbial bombshell had it been allowed to play out in the courts amounts to chump-change.

The owners are elated with the deal, as well they should be. Nothing since the threat of a new league spiced with anti-trust action by the government had scared them so deeply. You’ll never get them to admit it now, but many had believed the price of settling the crisis would be five times greater, maybe more. And it should have been.

But the players’ side got cold feet and fell for the argument that if they didn’t surrender, the all-powerful, deeply connected, totally ruthless moguls, backed by their heavily-paid pawn, the commissioner, and further sustained by an almighty power-structure led by the TV networks, would fight them like mad dogs and easily ensnare the proceedings in the courts for a hundred years, if need be. Might this have happened? We’ll never know for sure, will we.

In the end, most players didn’t want to wait for the rest of their lives, and maybe more. Did they bring pressure to force the cop-out? Now that they’re realizing how badly they got rooked, there’s no chance they’ll ever admit it.

It’s sad, really. The other day it was quietly revealed the NFL plans to add another Thursday night game on its own nice little gold mine of a TV network. Cable and carriage fees, etc., for the additional game will enrich the owners another $1.3 billion annually. That’s a mighty windfall when you consider it’s being achieved without any heavy lifting or lesser effort, save for the mere snap of their fingers.

In one year, by offering one more weekly televised game, the NFL owners can reap almost twice what they must pay to totally reimburse untold numbers of players having legitimate claim to compensation for permanent injury in their workplace.

In the end, it really won’t cost them a nickel.  What a great country!