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The most important football event not called the Super Bowl

Commentary Editor

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 30, 2014 23:01

With the State of the Union now over, many Americans will be turning their attention to this weekend’s Super Bowl. Even if the Patriots aren’t contending, I always look forward to the event as a time to eat some good food with some good friends and enjoy two great teams competing for the Lombardi trophy. Following the Super Bowl, the NFL will plunge into the offseason, and while plenty of personnel decisions will be made with regards to free agency and the draft, one of the biggest decisions will be taking place in a court room.

The NFL was recently sued by former players over concussions and the adverse health effects they have had as a result, years after taking off their pads. In recent years, the NFL has done more to not only inform players about the risks, but it has also tried to reduce the number of concussions with the implementation of new rules such as banning helmet-to-helmet collisions and requiring plays be called dead if the ball carrier’s helmet comes off. However, these new changes don’t rectify what happened to athletes that played decades ago.

Currently, the case is at a junction where Judge Anita B. Brody, who is presiding over the case, struck down the NFL’s proposed settlement of $765 million. The primary issue was that there wasn’t enough evidence to support that $765 million would be sufficient to cover over 18,000 retired players for conditions they either currently have or may develop further down the line. Though the NFL has arrived at the $765 million amount through some sort of calculation, they have not released the data or methods that were used, making it difficult to vet its accuracy. But despite the seemingly large magnitude of the payment, there is a very real concern over whether or not it will be enough.

According to the New York Times, the terms of settlement go something like this: When a player is diagnosed with dementia or another eligible condition, he will get a lump-sum payment in accordance with his age and career length. For example, a 12-year player with Alzheimer’s disease at 62 receives $950,000, while a one-year player with Parkinson’s at 57 receives $260,000. There are also some fixed costs with the settlement calculations as $70 million will be appropriated to the families of players who have died from diseases related to brain damage. The issue becomes accounting for the retirees that haven’t yet developed any illness, which requires statistical data.

Starting with the average American male as a baseline, 1.3 percent of American men aged 60 to 64 have dementia according to a 2013 study entitled “The global prevalence of dementia: a systematic review and metaanalysis”. This, combined with the national average rates for Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, leads to an estimated $350 million in necessary payments, according to the New York Times. It may seem as though the proposed settlement is more than enough, but that fails to take into consideration the comparisons between the average American male and an NFL retiree.

In a 2009 study by the University of Michigan, 6.1 percent of players age 50 and above reported that they had received a dementia-related diagnosis. Players of ages 30 through 49 showed a rate of 1.9 percent. Compare these results to national average rates of 1.2 and 0.1 percent, respectively. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, former NFL players were also four times more likely to develop Parkinson’s and four times more likely to develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. If $350 million is an estimation based on the rates for an average male, then it isn’t difficult to see how potential costs for the former players could have a high ceiling.

When you consider the potential advancements in diagnostics and treatment in the years to come, in addition to all the current data, there really is too much variability to set a cap on the settlement amount as the NFL wants to do. The best strategy is to just accept this immense variability and make the cap fluid. As players age, there will be more data and research, which can provide more a more accurate indication and estimation of payments. If data in five or ten years shows the necessary costs going over the proposed $765 million, then the cap should be adjusted to accommodate the new findings. This way the players get the assurance that they will be covered if an illness develops, and the NFL won’t have to suffer the PR consequences of leaving hundreds or thousands of players without the payment they deserve should the money run out. 

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