Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 29, 2013

NFL Clears The Decks

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be in the crowd watching the top 100 PGA Tour professionals vie for the Deutsche Bank Championship this weekend. As a result, Sunday’s post will be delayed.

With the final weekend of meaningless preseason games at hand, millions of sports fans are getting ready to turn their attention back to the NFL. So it only makes sense that league emperor, or as he prefers to be called to show he has a common touch, commissioner Roger Goodell would be busy taking steps to sweep aside any potentially negative storylines that might distract those fans from the action that is about to begin between the sidelines and the end zones. Goodell topped Sports Illustrated’s annual list of the most powerful people in sports last spring; and given the NFL’s $9 billion annual revenue stream and the Nielsen ratings for each Super Bowl, who would second guess the magazine?

While Goodell’s considerable power and extensive reach were apparently not enough to prevent former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez from being indicted for murder, that sordid tale is ultimately a local one. A far more broad-based problem for the NFL, and one with the potential for doing vastly greater damage to the league’s pocketbook and image, lies in the persistent questions of whether the top professional league of an inherently violent sport either has in the past or is now doing enough to protect its players from harm. Not the unavoidable harm of pulled muscles or torn ligaments, but the far more pernicious and debilitating harm of repeated head injuries. So it comes as no surprise that in the past few days the NFL acted in ways both public and private to move stories about football and concussions off the front page.

The public story was Thursday’s announcement that the NFL had agreed to pay $765 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of more than 4,500 retirees who claimed the league had hidden information about the dangers of head trauma. While no one can deny that three-quarters of a billion dollars is a lot of money, the common analysis following the announcement of the deal was that it represented a victory for the league.

While the settlement’s size may sound large, it is dwarfed by the NFL’s annual revenue, and is roughly the same amount as the Jacksonville Jaguars, a decidedly lesser franchise, sold for two years ago. It is certainly a far smaller amount than what scores of insurance and legal experts had said was the league’s potential liability had the case gone to trial. One insurance company estimate of a $2.5 billion liability was called conservative by other observers. And it doesn’t even need to be paid all at once. Half of the settlement must be paid within three years, but some final payments to retired players may not go out for another two decades.

Of course “potential liability” is not the same thing as a court-ordered judgment, and counsel for the plaintiffs had to recognize that taking the case through the full trial and appeals process against a contentious and profoundly deep-pocketed opponent was a process that would take many years. Meanwhile the players who were most involved in the suit have very significant and ongoing medical costs which an immediate settlement will help mitigate. The result is the NFL agrees to spend what for it is not really all that much money, quiets an increasingly vocal set of critics, and avoids a possibly nasty discovery phase when league officials and doctors would have been deposed.

While the concussion lawsuit settlement was a major story, much less attention was paid last week when ESPN abruptly pulled out of a joint production with PBS of a two-part investigative report about the NFL’s handling of head injuries. The sports network had been heavily involved for months in preparing the television report, which is based on a coming book by brothers and ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. It will still air as scheduled on “Frontline” in early October; but now it will do so without ESPN’s imprimatur.

A statement from ESPN said it ended the PBS partnership because of misunderstandings over editorial control of the project. Given that the film was essentially done that explanation at first seemed odd. But then it just sounded like so much predictable happy talk once it became known that a week before ESPN cut its ties to the head injury investigation there had been a New York power lunch between NFL and ESPN executives.

The gathering took place at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown headquarters and where the luncheon hamburger is priced at $24. Goodell was joined by Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; while across the table sat ESPN president John Skipper and the network’s executive vice president for production John Wildhack. In published reports the usual anonymous sources described the meeting as “combative,” with Goodell and Bornstein making clear their displeasure over ESPN’s involvement in a report that was likely to add to the growing story of the past several years of the NFL ignoring a body of evidence that head injuries suffered on the field lead to profound long-term damage to players.

One doesn’t need anonymous sources to be certain that no one at the table mentioned the mutually lucrative contract between the NFL and ESPN to broadcast Monday Night Football, or any of the myriad other ways in which the country’s top professional sports league and leading sports broadcaster are interconnected. There would have been no need to be so crass.

So with an affordable settlement to a potentially costly and embarrassing lawsuit needing only a judge’s final approval, and an unpleasant televised addition to the ongoing narrative about head injuries diminished, Goodell and company can turn their attention, and that of millions of fans, to next week’s opening kickoffs. Stadiums around the country will be packed and television ratings will be high as our modern-day gladiators take the field. The NFL will be back, and it will be morning again in America. At least until the next time a brain-damaged former player puts a bullet through his head, or a star running back lies limp on the forty yard line after a helmet to helmet hit; and we are all once again reminded just how very silent 80,000 people can suddenly become.


  1. Fantastic work here, my friend. Just first-rate. Should be read by every football fan. Goodall and Co. are so much more adept at keeping their product above the fray, compared to what Selig manages to do to dump baseball in the crapper every few months. While I’m impressed by Goodall’s competence, it is the competence of Machiavelli at his peak. Meanwhile, the press continues to give football (mostly) a pass (no pun intended.)
    Great work,

    • Thanks so much Bill. You make an excellent point as well. The contrast between the public image that the NFL manages to consistently market and the morass that Selig and company seem to constantly have baseball in is stark indeed. Although I’m not sure if the media gives the NFL a free ride or if it’s just a case of so many fans being so enamored of football that they collectively choose to ignore the reporting that is out there.

      Thanks again,

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