Shame on NFL, Goodell for Easy Settlement

What we have here, of course, is the professional sports equivalent of Big Tobacco. Football has been dangerous to one’s health for decades, yet the NFL never has bothered displaying the bold cautionary language similar to that on cigarette packaging. You know …

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Participation in a barbaric game can cause repeated head trauma that leads to depression, dementia and other long-term neurological and degenerative disorders, while limiting quality of life and raising the potential of suicide.

The message, or something of the such, could have been posted prominently on locker-room bulletin boards, on the sides of football helmets, during network game telecasts, anywhere allowing players and their families to be educated about concussion risks. But the NFL never gave thought to such a disclaimer, mostly because the league fathers were ignorant, or in denial, or too busy glorifying and profiting from football’s violent aspects. As pointed out by the New York Times, it wasn’t long ago when commissioner Roger Goodell suggested that former NFL lineman Justin Strzelczyk — who, following a concussion-battered career, died at 36 when he crashed his vehicle into a tank truck at 90 mph while trying to avoid police in a stupor — may not have developed CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) from playing football.

“He may have had a concussion swimming,” Goodell actually said.

Absorbing a comment so reckless and irresponsible, I’m even more disgusted that the NFL got off much too easy in settling its landmark legal challenge by more than 4,500 former players for $765 million. For those who view it as a whopper sum, consider that the NFL will take in revenues approaching $10 billion this year while projecting annual revenues of $25 billion within the next dozen years. Also consider this: When Big Tobacco was forced to settle its legal challenges in 1998, it forked over $246 billion to U.S. states — a figure that projects considerably larger in today’s economy. Since then, smoking rates have taken big drops, young people generally aren’t into cigarettes unless they’re stuffed with weed, and Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man are no longer in mainstream America. Big Tobacco is dying.

But Big Football carries right on without a hiccup after its major “settlement,” even as it continues to kill the people crazy enough to play. Bring on Carrie Underwood (in place of Faith Hill) and that stupid Fox robot.

Are you ready for some amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?

It’s easy for us to say the plaintiffs should have forced their class-action case into a courtroom or arbitration, where they could have won a larger financial settlement. But so many of the aggrieved have immediate medical needs and might not have survived long enough to reap far-off benefits. Take former NFL running back Kevin Turner, who has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Chances are … I won’t make it to 50 or 60,” Turner, 44, told the Associated Press. “I have money now to put back for my children to go to college and for a little something to be there financially.” Here is where the NFL could have been more generous. But Goodell and the lawyers drew the line at $765 million, which smacks of a negotiated sum when negotiation of any sort in this matter seems insensitive.

In agreeing to the settlement, the NFL at the very least acknowledges an indirect culpabiility, even it didn’t have to legally admit to wrongdoing that it concealed information about the aftereffects of head injuries. The league would have helped its public perception by volunteering $2 billion or so as the settlement figure, still a pittance compared to the BIg Tobacco number. Instead, the quick and cheap agreement — announced at the start of a holiday weekend and only days before the NFL regular season opens — smacks more of Goodell relieving himself of a massive burden off a very cluttered desk than any deep-seated concern about the health of players.

Nor did Goodell do himself a favor by refusing comment on the settlement. He left those duties to a deputy, NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash, who said in a statement: “We thought it was critical to get more help to players and families who deserve it rather than spend many years and millions of dollars on litigation. This is an important step that builds on the significant changes we’ve made in recent years to make the game safer.” The news demanded a major press conference, where Goodell could have explained how he will navigate pro football through a safety crisis that threatens the sport’s long-term existence. He could have brought some of the owners, including Jerry Jones of the cash-cow Dallas Cowboys, who once advised his quarterback, Troy Aikman, not to worry about concussion symptoms “since all data that we have so far don’t point to any lasting effects, long-term effects from the head trauma.”

Instead, Goodell will vanish for days, until he pops up in Denver to celebrate the NFL experience on opening night of another bang-up season. It’s difficult for me to separate the concept of a life-and-death sport from the hype surrounding quarterbacks, coaches and teams — to me, concussions and tailgating are mutually exclusive concepts. I resent that, too — Goodell waiting to resolve the lawsuits until he absolutely had to, wanting to avoid negative attention that would have interfered with his games and telecasts. This commissioner and this league do not deserve to escape so lightly.

But if they are relieved, their comfort zone will be a brief one. Only hours after the settlement announcement, a Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman, Seth Olsen, was pounded in the head by the right knee of a Tennessee Titans defensive lineman. Face first, he fell into the turf, and for 10 minutes, medical personnel worked on strapping him to a gurney. He was wheeled away to a warm ovation.

‘`You could see all our guys getting on a knee and just praying for him and just hoping for the best,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “When those moments come and they bring that stretcher out, you have no idea what’s going on.”

He was diagnosed with a concussion. The Vikings hope Olsen returns for their first regular season game, Sept. 8 in Detroit against the Lions.

The beat goes on.

The beatings go on.