PHILADELPHIA — The NFL agreed to pay more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to settle lawsuits from thousands of former players who developed dementia or other concussion-related health problems they say were caused by the very on-field violence that fueled the game's rise to popularity and profit.
The settlement, unprecedented in sports, was announced Thursday after two months of court-ordered mediation and is subject to approval by a federal judge. It came exactly a week before the first game of the 2013 season, removing a major legal and financial threat hanging over the sport for two years.
U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody in Philadelphia is expected to rule on the settlement in two to three months but said it "holds the prospect of avoiding lengthy, expensive and uncertain litigation, and of enhancing the game of football."
More than 4,500 former players, some of them suffering from Alzheimer's disease or depression, accused the NFL of concealing the long-term dangers of concussions and rushing injured players back onto the field, while glorifying and profiting from the bone-crushing hits that were often glorified in slow motion on NFL Films.
"Football has been my life and football has been kind to me," said former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, one of at least 10 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who filed suit since 2011. "But when I signed up for this, I didn't know some of the repercussions. I did know I could get injured, but I didn't know about my head or the trauma or the things that could happen to me later on in life."
The settlement applies to all past NFL players and spouses of those who are deceased — a group that could total more than 20,000 — and will cost the league $765 million, the vast majority of which would go to compensate retirees with certain neurological ailments, plus plaintiffs' attorney fees, which could top $100 million. It sets aside $75 million for medical exams and $10 million for medical research.
Individual payouts would be capped at $5 million for men with Alzheimer's disease; $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy; and $3 million for players with dementia, said lead plaintiffs' lawyer Christopher Seeger.
"We got what we wanted, let's put it that way," said Seeger, who noted that settlement discussions began more than a year ago.
The settlement does not include an admission from the NFL that it hid information from players about head injuries. Commissioner Roger Goodell told pro football's lawyers to "do the right thing for the game and the men who played it," according to a statement by the league.
Goodell was not made available for comment.
The NFL takes in revenues of more than $9 billion a year, a figure that will rise when new TV contracts start in 2014.
In addition to Dorsett, the plaintiffs include Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers from dementia; former running back Kevin Turner, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease; and the family of All-Pro selection Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.