BOSTON (Reuters) - The National Football League has agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of former players, many suffering from dementia and health problems, who accused the league of hiding the dangers of brain injury while profiting from the sport's violence.
The deal announced on Thursday comes a week before the NFL begins a new season and could resolve a long-running concern for team owners, who faced the prospect of a possibly lengthy trial that could have delved deeply into how well the league understood the toll that football can take on its players.
Sports business experts described the settlement, which will be paid out over decades, as a modest amount of money for the NFL, believed to generate total revenue of $9 billion or $10 billion a year.
But they also said the more than 4,500 former players who brought their case in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania could have a struggled to prove each plaintiff's health problems was a direct result of years on the playing field.
"It would certainly seem to be fair financial terms to the NFL as an enterprise, especially given how difficult this lawsuit has been from a PR and perception viewpoint on both the NFL and the sport of football," said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University. "This is a very positive end for the NFL."
In recent years, there have been a spate of suicides among current and former NFL players, including Jovan Belcher, Junior Seau, Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson. While none of those deaths could be directly connected to football, violent and erratic behavior is consistent with symptoms of a condition tied to the repeated hits to the head that players endure during games and practices.
A growing body of academic research shows those hits can lead to a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to aggression and dementia.
The research has already prompted the NFL to make changes in play, including banning the most dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits and requiring teams to keep players who have taken hits to the head off the field if they show symptoms including gaps in memory or dizziness.
"This is an important step that builds on the significant changes we've made in recent years to make the game safer, and we will continue our work to better the long-term health and well-being of NFL players," said NFL Executive Vice President Jeffrey Pash.
The league agreed to fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation and a program of medical research as well as to cover some legal expenses, according to a court filing.
The NFL admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement.
The settlement will cover all former NFL players but none still in uniform once approved by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, who in July ordered both sides to meet with mediator Layn Phillips, a retired federal judge.
"The NFL has decided to stand up for all of the former players who are suffering from brain injuries," Kevin Turner, a former running back for the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots who served as a lead plaintiff in the case, told reporters on a conference call.
"The compensation provided in this settlement will lift a huge burden off the men who are suffering right now," said Turner, 44, who struggled to speak clearly due to Lou Gehrig's disease, which he said is linked to his eight years in the league. "They'll no longer have to make decisions regarding their health based on what they can afford but they can make it based on what is the best treatment."
Not all former players welcomed the deal.
"Big loss for the players now and the future! Estimated NFL revenue by 2025 = $27 billion," Kevin Mawae, a former center with the Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans who previously served as president of the NFL Players' Association, said on Twitter.
The settlement spares the league from revealing all its records related to brain injuries in players, which likely would have come out had the case gone to trial.
A blanket settlement - with some of the money to be paid out over two decades - also helps the league by reducing the risk of a large jury award. The bulk of the money - $675 million - will be set aside for player benefits, to be paid out depending on symptoms, with diagnoses of Lou Gehrig's disease, formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, getting the largest payout, $5 million.
"It's far better than the alternative ... a constant drip, drip, drip of the NFL looking like they're strong-arming their former players," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
The league had said it disclosed the information it had regarding research into brain trauma. It had previously argued that the lawsuit was inappropriate because the issue of player safety is governed by the collective bargaining agreements negotiated between the league and the players' union.
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Cynthia Osterman and Tim Dobbyn