A federal judge in Philadelphia granted final approval Wednesday to a class-action settlement worth an estimated $765 million between the NFL and thousands of former players over the long-term effects of repeated concussions.
The deal, endorsed by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in a 132-page opinion, marked a significant step toward ending what has been one of the most protracted and publicly debated legal fights in the history of the league.
Most notable, the settlement would not require the NFL to address allegations that have dogged it for years that top executives hid their knowledge on the risks and long-term complications of concussions from players.
The league's retirees, however, would not have to prove in court that their mental impairments are directly tied to injuries suffered during their time playing football.
The deal provides for payouts as high as $5 million to the sickest players. NFL auditors estimate that more than 6,000 of the currently living 20,000 NFL retirees could be eligible to collect with an average payment of $190,000.
Negotiators for both sides welcomed Brody's nod Wednesday, saying the deal had been designed to quickly help former players who are in dire need of medical benefits.
"Retirees and their families will be eligible for prompt and substantial benefits and will avoid years of costly litigation that - as Judge Brody's comprehensive opinion makes clear - would have an uncertain prospect of success," NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said in a statement.
Sol Weiss and Christopher Seeger, colead counsel representing the players, said: "Nearly four years ago, retired NFL players embarked on a mission that many thought to be impossible: to obtain security and care for the devastating neurocognitive injuries they were experiencing."
Payouts to individual players would not begin until after all appeals are settled. Without an appeal, the payments could begin as early as this summer, Seeger and Weiss said.
The settlement comes four years after players, suffering from symptoms such as memory loss and mood swings to more serious conditions such as Parkinson's disease, began suing the NFL, saying they had been misled about the risks to their health.
Among the players who filed suit were former Chicago Bears and Eagles quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers from dementia; former Eagles fullback Kevin Turner; and Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.
In her opinion Wednesday, Brody described the plan as "fair, reasonable, and adequate."
She granted it a preliminary nod last year but has twice sent lawyers for both sides back to the negotiating table to address her concerns, including a fear that an earlier $675 million cap on payouts to players would not be enough to last the full 65-year life span of the deal. The league agreed to remove that cap.
Later, the lawyers agreed to make smaller modifications at Brody's urging, including removing a similar cap on funding for baseline neurological testing for all retirees.
Under the terms of the settlement's current version, retired players would be compensated on a sliding scale based on age, the number of seasons played, and whether post-career injuries might have contributed to their diagnoses.
Maximum awards of $5 million would go to players under age 45 who played five or more seasons in the NFL and require extensive treatment over their lifetimes for conditions such as Parkinson's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Payouts of up to $4 million would go to families of deceased players who after death were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disorder that has been linked to repeated concussions and the high-profile suicides of San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau and other former players.
The deal also provides funds for medical monitoring of currently healthy former players and an additional $10 million to fund education about concussions.
Though there is no cap on the overall price tag, lawyers for both sides estimate that $765 million will cover the cost. Outside auditors have estimated the total price tag, including $112 million the league has agreed to pay in lawyer fees, could reach as high as $1 billion.
Still, critics continue to question many of the settlement's tenants, including their belief that the NFL, an organization with annual revenues approaching $10 billion, got off lightly.
Others fault the settlement for not providing for players who in the future will be found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can be diagnosed only after death.
The plan's sliding scale with dramatic drop-offs in payments for older players or those who played fewer than five years in the league have also been criticized.
So far, about 200 former players have specifically opted out of the settlement, including Seau's family, saying they will take their chances battling the league individually in court.
BY THE NUMBERS
Maximum award for those under age 45 who played five or more seasons in the NFL and require extensive treatment over their lifetimes.
Maximum payout to families of deceased players who were found after death to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The degenerative brain disorder has been linked to repeated concussions.
The average payment for the 6,000 former players who are expected to be affected.