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In their dealings with the player-alumni, the NFL’s lawyers played like Pro Bowlers

With a sigh of relief reverberating from sea to shining sea, the National Football League is skipping into another merry season as if nothing has happened with a glorious autumn of good old traditional “sis, boom, bah” looming before us, one and all.

For sure it’s pretty to think so, especially if you are one of the high rolling plutocrats who own an NFL franchise and are about to share equally in roughly $10 billion in revenues, win, lose, or draw. Only in the NFL – an iron-fisted lodge composed of individual capitalists as rugged as you’ll find in any dodge – might you find a quite blissful socialism being happily embraced, their war cry being, “Share the Wealth!”

As in all efficient autocratic systems, the owners say nothing and tell you nothing, never lettting on how they really feel. So we are left to guess at how seriously they took the threat to their enormous riches represented by the rebellion of the league’s illustrious player-alumni of battered and discarded cannon fodder who just a month ago seemed on the verge of laying a veritable stranglehold on the game, its riches, and its future.

The informed guessing is that only a month ago the owners were petrified. For them, the NFLPA concussion suit had scary potential, and all the more so because it would be played out over completely uncharted turf and decided by people unlikely to be moved by the sentimental whims of mere sport.

The NFL alumni were asking for $2 billion just for openers and had in mind an arrangement of indefinite length that would effectively make them full-fledged partners drawing annually from the game’s immense pie of profits to compensate up to 18,000 retired performers or the next of kin of those deceased. All of which could have easily swelled the financial bite on said owners well into the many billions. Anyway, that was the players’ ultimate, if theoretical, goal and maybe it was always unrealistic.

Or maybe it might have been achievable, and certainly partly so, had the players been willing to stay the course, take the chance, bond tightly (like owners do), even if it meant foregoing any compensation perhaps indefinitely because nobody has better lawyers or more of them than the NFL and the ever-loving owners had let it be well-known they’d fight this thing another 25 years or until the cows come home, whichever happens latest. And nobody doubts the tenacity of these bloody brigands, least of all people who’d the pleasure of being employed by them. It was on that last point – not surprisingly – that the poor players got cold feet.

So they caved in.

In the settlement forged on the eve of the regular season they got $765 million, and at first the reaction of many was, “Wow!” But in the end it will be seen as “peanuts,” mere pennies on the dollar. For working stiffs, going up against the NFL owners in 2013 would offer roughly as much fun as it was for those who engaged the robber barons who controlled all the mines and mills so memorably more than a century ago.

And, yes, I do recognize that playing football and digging coal are not comparable working experiences. But if your life is shortened 20 years, or made miserable over more than half your later lifetime by the conditions of your employment, the principle is quite the same, at least in terms of ethics and law.

In the fortnight since the deal was struck the beating the old players took in this so-called settlement has gradually become clearer and, as usual, you’ll find the devil himself in the details.

The roughly three quarters of a billion dollar payoff comes down to approximately $24 million per team (plus equal shares of the as-yet undetermined NFLPA legal fees). The owners have 20 years to pay it all off, although half the total must be delivered in the first six.

So the hit on each owner is about $1.2 million a year, or roughly the cost of a single back-bencher and suicide-squad kamikaze of the sort that mainly labors on special teams and is, arguably, the most vulnerable to such occupational hazards as concussions. Ah, the ironies! They are simply endless.

Let’s put it another way.  The NFL is placating their maimed and aching alums with $765 million. That’s less than half of the $1.9 billion that the league receives from ESPN every year for the broadcasting rights to Monday Night Football. And need I further remind you that the TV package is but a slice of their immense annual broadcasting bonanza.

It has been said that $765 million is hardly “chump change,” even in these turbulent times. But I have news for you, mate: In this particular context, $765 million is decidedly that, and maybe less. The players got taken.

It has been further said the average payout to the some 5,000 ex-players claiming head-injury after-effects will be $153,000. But that’s a calculation already exposed as misleading. Roughly 12,000 alums didn’t sign onto the lawsuit, which doesn’t disqualify them from making claims if they have legitimate grievances.

A huge chunk will go to the several dozen lads, and/or their heirs, who suffered the most from the horrific likes of the various horribly disabling dementias, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, CTE, and so forth. The estate of Junior Seau, a recent suicide, could get up to $8 million. The ranks of those multi-million dollar cases grow monthly. Ex-Jets safety Jim Hudson, a too-tough Texan, joined them just a week ago.
All of which is sure to reduce the “average” payout to much less than $153,000, and when that happens, you’re going to hear a whole lot of howling out there on the NFL hustings.

This is not a very good solution to a very difficult problem, and in the end the NFL owners are going to regret it, I believe. Although at this moment they are clearly exulting in the belief they have once again taken those suckers, the dumb players, over the hurdles.

There was not so much as a whimper from a one of them over the final settlement, and that’s not just because they’re fervently pledged – like the very good comrades they truly are – to maintain a stoic commitment to the party line at all costs, but because they devoutly believe that they just got one helluva deal.

Had the suit gone on and on and on, and had the players dug in, opting to fight the good fight to the very last, then all the documentation, memos, medical data, research material strongly suggesting that owners always knew working conditions of their employees were needlessly harsh and hazardous would have been revealed, and the consequences for said owners might have been catastrophic. Moreover, they might have been deposed, harassed, and hauled into court to testify, with the entire messy business ultimately landing in the lap of a jury of common folk. Heaven help us!

The settlement seals all that stuff. It means none of it need be brought to light. That’s what Commissioner Roger Goodell, who pretends to be commissioner of the entire NFL but is actually the chief and devoted man-servant of those 32 gentlemen who own the teams, was near maniacally determined to accomplish. And once again, he came through for his dear bosses most admirably. No wonder they love him so much.

But methinks he might have been willing to pay more for this prize, rather nearer to three times as much, which is what the players originally sought. Given what they were up against, the players may have had no choice but to settle. That is if the majority, so severely under-paid in their playing days, were to reap deservedly legitimate benefits in their lifetime. Still, they should never have settled so cheap.

The moral of the story being that it’s not how well you play the game but how good your lawyers are.