What’s a fair price to allow millions of fans to watch pro and college football without dwelling on the irrevocable harm it might be doing to the participants? Try $765 million.
That’s the settlement the National Football League has agreed to in order to resolve a lawsuit filed on behalf of 4,500 former players regarding concussion-related injuries they suffered during their pro careers. And in the bigger scheme of things, it’s a relatively small price to pay for all concerned.
The concussion story line has become a public-relations headache of its own for the league, ESPN and others with a major investment in football, by far the U.S.’ most popular sport. Indeed, for all the strides ESPN has made in its efforts to present itself as a legitimate journalistic enterprise, it has taken another beating recently over its decision to withdraw from a “Frontline” documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” exploring the issue and scheduled to air in October.
Football is so deeply rooted in the national psyche it’s hard to imagine anything shaking the relationship, but the drumbeat of coverage has nevertheless concerned the NFL, while prompting some outlets — most notably the Wall Street Journal — to rally to the game’s defense. (Part of that, apparently, had as much to do with antipathy toward the New York Times’ aggressive reporting on the issue as anything else.)
The NFL is already dealing with its share of bad publicity, including the lingering cloud related to the murder charges against former star Aaron Hernandez. But the larger threat from the concussion lawsuit is the nagging feeling that every time you thrill to the sight of a big hit or collision, you’re potentially watching somebody being damaged or crippled in a lasting way. (Personally, boxing has never been the same since seeing the toll years of punishment in the ring inflicted on Muhammad Ali.)
There’s simply too much money swirling around the league to allow that to happen, which is why the NFL would move to settle the case before the new season begins. The real question now will be how transparent the league is going forward about medical-research efforts, and whether the media can see beyond the scoreboard to stay focused on an issue that most football fans would just as soon forget.
In a column on ESPN.com, Kevin Seifert argued the settlement “saves the game” from “Armageddon scenarios that threatened the existence of the league.”
Like a lot of what you read about the NFL on ESPN, that seems to be steeped in hyperbole. But for those who think the NFL cares a lot more about its bottom line than it does about the health of former and current players, considerable damage has already been done.