BUFFALO, N.Y.-After rejecting a previous settlement with former players, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia on Monday gave preliminary approval to a deal that would compensate thousands of former NFL players for concussion-related claims.
Brody had rejected an earlier deal that had a $675 million cap on damages. She had questioned whether that cap would be enough to compensate all claims.
According to the Associated Press, the settlement is designed to last at least 65 years and cover retirees who develop Lou Gherig's disease and other neurological problems.
"A class action settlement that offers prompt relief is superior to the likely alternative -- years of expensive, difficult, and uncertain litigation, with no assurance of recovery, while retired players' physical and mental conditions continue to deteriorate," Brody wrote.
"This is an extraordinary settlement for retired NFL players and their families -- from those who suffer with neuro-cognitive illnesses today, to those who are currently healthy but fear they may develop symptoms decades into the future," plaintiffs' attorneys Sol Weiss and Christopher Seeger said in a statement.
Not everyone agrees.
More than 4,500 former players have sued the league, some accusing it of fraud for its handling of concussions. They include former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers from dementia.
NFL Hall of Famer and former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure has said of all the programs the NFL claims to have to treat concussions, they are too difficult to access for the players.
"You have to prove you have CTE," DeLamielleure, now 63, said of receiving compensation for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. "How are you going to prove that while you're living? How are you going to prove it when you're dead? You'd have to give your brain to science. Then the doctors can debate it."
In addition to the $675 million for compensatory claims for players with neurological symptoms, the original settlement included $75 million for baseline testing and $10 million for medical research and education. The NFL would also pay an additional $112 million to the players' lawyers, for a total payout of more than $870 million.
The revised settlement eliminates the cap on overall damage claims but retains a payout formula for individual retirees that considers their age and illness. A young retiree with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, would receive $5 million, a 50-year-old with Alzheimer's disease would get $1.6 million and an 80-year-old with early dementia would get $25,000.
Even with the cap removed, both sides said they believe the NFL will spend no more than about $675 million on damage claims by ex-players.
With NFL revenues approaching $10 billion, many former players have spoken out against a deal they believe doesn't go far enough.
"My reaction is the same as the last time they (reached a deal)," said DeLamielleure. "It's not very good for the players, but this one's great for the attorneys. The attorneys are getting $112 million, but for the players to get anything, they're either going to have to be dead or basically have drool coming out of their mouth – nonfunctioning."
"The attorneys agreed to this because they're finally going to get paid. And that's the way it is."
The settlement allows the league to contest an unlimited number of requests for awards by retired players as a way to prevent fraudulent claims.
"They will put more money into it," DeLamielleure said, "but how are you going to access the money? The owners also have unlimited appeals. They're going to delay, deny and hope we die. That's what they're going to do."
"I'd love to hear (commissioner Roger Goodell) explain how this is a good deal for the guys who built this league. I would love to hear his explanation for it."
During his playing days, DeLamielleure was an outspoken voice for player benefits. In 1982, he told Gene Upshaw (who later became the NFL Players Association executive director) that the players needed livable pensions and health care.
"I've been saying it since 1980," DeLamielleure said. "We have neither. Guys who played before 1993 have sub-poverty pensions and no health care. You're one axe away from being broke. We've got guys living in homeless shelters when it's a multi-billion dollar industry. They can't take care of somebody and give them a livable pension? Give them medical care? (The NFL) only have to do it until they're 65 years old. Then the government will take care of you through Medicare."
"Give us what we've earned. The NFL refuses to help the people who helped build the game. They want to keep it all for themselves and give it to the young players in bonuses."
He added the players who were pensioned between 1967 and 1993 deserve to get the same pension as the current players.
DeLamielleure said many former players are now stuck because they can't afford to wait another five years for a ruling if they appeal the decision.
"The general public thinks we're all multimillionaires," he said. "We'll never get the sympathy of the general public and I don't blame them… but if you compare our pensions and medical benefits to any other professional sport in the world, we have the worst and it's the most lucrative professional sport."
Retired players will soon receive packets in the mail explaining the terms of the settlement. Players can choose to opt out or object to portions of the deal, but like DeLamielleure said, many cannot realistically go down that road because they need medical help now.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the settlement avoids the risk of a protracted legal battle.
"The only thing that's changed from the last lawsuit is the lawyers got paid," DeLamielleure said.
A fairness hearing on the final settlement will be held Nov. 19.