Originally Published: December 12, 2016 8 p.m.
The Supreme Court on Monday rejected the final two challenges to the estimated $1 billion settlement between the NFL and thousands of its former players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions. Players who already have been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or dementia could begin receiving payments in 90 to 120 days.
"This is a historical moment for the retired player community who, in the face of great adversity, took on the NFL," said attorney Christopher Seeger, who represented the class of more than 20,000 former NFL players now eligible for payments for the next 65 years.
"Despite the difficult health situations retired players face today, and that many more will unfortunately face in the future, they can have peace of mind knowing that this settlement's benefits will finally become available to them and will last for decades to come."
The league has estimated that 6,000 former players — or nearly three in 10 — could develop Alzheimer's disease or moderate dementia. Payments could be as high as $5 million for those with Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS; the average payout is expected to be closer to $190,000.
Seeger said more than 11,000 have pre-registered for benefits.
"We will make sure that every single eligible retired player takes advantage of this settlement's benefits," he told reporters in a conference call. "We will be undertaking a massive education effort to ensure that all former NFL players know about the settlement's benefits and understand how to file a claim."
The class-action lawsuit filed in Philadelphia accused the NFL of hiding what it knew about the link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that has been found in dozens of former players after their deaths. Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody approved the deal last year after twice sending it back to lawyers over concerns the fund might run out.
The deal was upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April.
"We must hesitate before rejecting that bargain based on an unsupported hope that sending the parties back to the negotiating table would lead to a better deal," Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel that affirmed the settlement.
But two separate petitions — one from the family of late Buffalo Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist, and the other from a group of 31 players that included including 1996 Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown and Hall of Famer Charles Haley — asked the nation's highest court to stop the settlement. Their requests for a Supreme Court hearing were rejected without comment from the justices on Monday.
The NFL admitted no fault as part of the settlement, though a league official did acknowledge during congressional testimony that there is a link between football and CTE. The deal avoids the need for a trial and means the NFL may never have to disclose what it knew and when about the risks and treatment of repeated concussions.
Still, Seeger said, much progress has been made.
"When this lawsuit was first filed, discussions over concussions and player safety in the NFL were rare, and holding the NFL accountable seemed almost impossible," Seeger said. "But with the help of these players, more and more attention is placed on the issue of safety and head injuries in sports. Those who had the courage to file suit and take on this cause deserve tremendous credit for what they have achieved."
In a statement, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league was pleased with the decision.
"We look forward to working with class counsel and Judge Brody to implement the settlement and provide the important benefits that our retired players and their families have been waiting to receive," McCarthy said.
Critics complained that the settlement approved by Brody does not cover future CTE cases. The lead negotiators said they instead set aside compensation for treatment for some CTE symptoms. That does not include the depression, aggression and mood swings reported by some former players who experienced repeated concussions.
Other payments are expected to be around $4 million for past CTE deaths and $3.5 million for advanced Alzheimer's disease. "They will not need to prove that their diagnosis is the result of NFL football to receive an award," Seeger said.
Players' lawyers who negotiated the deal with the NFL — and stand to split $112 million in fees — say the settlement will help families get needed financial awards or medical testing that might take years if the case went to trial.
Ambro agreed. "Compensation for players who are coping with these symptoms now is surely preferable to waiting until they die to pay their estates for a CTE diagnosis," the judge wrote.
Seeger closed his comments by thanking former New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner, who was the lead plaintiff in the litigation. Researchers announced last month that Turner suffered from CTE to a degree that they had not seen for an athlete who died in his 40s.
"It's really important that people understand that without the commitment that Kevin made, it wouldn't be possible to get where we are," Seeger said. "I end this on somewhat of a sad note that Kevin couldn't be here to see this."