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Atlanta Dan
09-02-2013, 09:57 PM
The settlemnt of the concussion lawsuit may not mean happy days are here again

Can the NFL Face Its Demons?

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The NFL is attempting to crack down on violent hits like the one Pittsburgh's James Harrison put on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi in 2010.

Thursday night brings the debut of the 2013 NFL season—the good stuff, not the dull-as-drywall preseason, as the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens travel to Denver (thanks Orioles!) to visit the Broncos, contenders again under Peyton Manning. There will be unbroken pro football now through Ice Bowl XLVIII in New York Frigid City (brrrrr!), and because of this, there is the kind of universal giddiness that used to be reserved for poker nights or holiday mornings.

The NFL is the nation's most popular sport, a weekend religion, a television juggernaut, a workplace argument, a family bond—and, if nothing else, a blissfully legitimate excuse for mid-afternoon nachos and beer. Optimism thrives at the moment—the Patriots, the Bills, and your horrendously constructed fantasy team are all atop the standings at 0-0! Exciting questions abound. Can the Ravens repeat? Is Colin Kaepernick a great? Are the Seahawks for realsies? Will RGIII be healthy in Washington? What will Chip Kelly cook up in Philadelphia? Why do the helmets on the Jacksonville Jaguars look like 1979 Trans Ams?

At times football can appear invincible, as if it can never be stopped. And yet there is trouble lurking below the surface—not even below the surface, actually, right there, unavoidable, intractable. A beloved game has an unshakeable queasy feeling.

Last Thursday, the NFL settled for $765 million with a group of 4,500 ex-players who sued the league over concussion-related injuries. In the agreement, the NFL admitted no wrongdoing or liability, but agreed to pay medical benefits and injury compensations to former players, as well as fund medical research.

There continues to be a low rumble about the settlement and its impact. Some of it has been cold-veined talk about the timing of the NFL's move—taking care of this now, before the season begins, avoiding an uncomfortable discussion stretching deeper into the season or subsequent seasons. (There's something more than crass and/or comical about this, the idea that settling the lawsuit could possibly end a complicated long-term medical discussion that continues to evolve.) There's also been a lot of conversation about the dollar amount. The Journal reported that NFL revenues are projected to reach $10 billion this season; ESPN reported that the player plaintiff group had sought $2 billion. They wound up taking far less than half of that, to be paid in increments over a period of 20 years, 50% in first three years, the rest over the next 17 years.

This has made some former players less than happy.

"Basically, for the cost of their least valuable team, the NFL was able to remove a huge monkey off their back," Kevin Mawae, the former president of the NFL players association—and not a plaintiff in this lawsuit—told the Journal's Matthew Futterman and Kevin Clark. "But even worse than the money, it's that they don't have to admit guilt and the players will never be able to know the information that the league knew about this issue."

The frustration is real. But this settlement does not rule out other lawsuits. It does not close the door on the information that Mawae wants. More challenges are sure to come.

Nor does the resolution of this case signal a new, sanguine era of confidence. Anxiety only grows. It's hard to be around discussion of any contact sport—at any level, male or female athletes—without hearing parents worry out loud about the potential long-term impact of concussion-related injuries. The mood has changed, taken on an ominous weight. A couple years ago, Tom Brady's father, Tom Sr., gave an interview to Yahoo Sports! in which he wondered out loud whether he would have allowed his son to play football if he had the same choice today. Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner has expressed similar reservations about his own children.

Those are not random voices, unfamiliar with the potential money and adulation that can be earned playing this game. Their hesitation speaks to a problem that goes deep to the roots and cannot be swept away with a series of incremental payments.

Of course, the settlement has provoked some emboldened some bravado about free will and personal responsibility—the notion that players should know better, that risks are inherent in many jobs, that everyone makes the individual decision whether or not to play. This feels like cavalier talk, considering the long inertia on addressing concussion-related injuries, and the worrisome science that continues to accumulate.

A game of speed and collisions, football has often airbrushed its harsher parts as some kind of modern gladiator fable, in which the toughest limped to victory. But those hard hits mean something harder now. You don't need to have played a down to realize this. Thanks to former players who have chosen to tell their personal stories, we are learning more. Reality is rushing in. This game is still beloved. But it feels different to watch.

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