It’s difficult to say just how much embarrassment and exposure it will take to force those rotters in NFL ownership to accept responsibility for the hazards of the game they reap billions from and stop treating players like disposable napkins at their profit banquet. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is beloved now, but if he develops concussion-related cognitive problems later and tries to seek medical recompense from the league, here is what he can expect: a slow walk to a swindle.
Anyone who doubts that should talk to the family of Don Maynard. As a younger man, Maynard was like Kelce is now: an agile, dancy-hipped record-setter, whose fingertips were Joe Namath’s favorite target and who helped the New York Jets win a sensational Super Bowl. Then he grew old and confused. In 2019, the NFL concussion settlement’s own network doctors agreed he had dementia. Three years later, his compensation claim was still stuck in a torturous medical-legal bureaucracy that seems intentionally built to deny and delay claims until players die.
Maynard finally got a letter saying he qualified for a settlement — three days after he died in an assisted-living facility in January 2022.
Reading The Washington Post’s exposé of the concussion settlement’s failure provokes a wildfire of anger so widespread that it’s hard to know what to be angriest about. Let’s start with The Post’s investigative conclusion that a breathtaking 1,100 player dementia claims have been denied, potentially worth about $700 million or more in compensation.
Ex-players have waited months for appointments and years for test results — only for anonymous review boards to overturn the diagnoses of the doctors who examined them. Almost 300 claims were denied even though the NFL settlement’s own doctor network diagnosed them. One review doctor told The Post he felt pushed to deny claims so as to suppress settlement costs, which have risen to $1.2 billion.
Or maybe what’s most incensing is the revelation that the settlement operates on a more onerous definition of dementia from the standard used by doctors in this country.
This is chicanery, pure and simple.
As any American family with someone suffering from encroaching dementia well knows — more than 6 million families and climbing — one of the most painful mysteries of the disease is how a person can be perfectly functional in one area and yet be completely nonfunctional in another. Aphasia can make it difficult to speak, yet someone can still drive. But under the terms of the NFL settlement — which some players now say were never explained to them — players must have at least four impaired tests across two different protocols to receive a qualifying diagnosis. Randolph Evans, a neurologist with a 30-year practice in Houston and background in traumatic brain injuries, saw 38 of his NFL patients rejected, even though their test scores showed cognitive decline. They were considered not severe enough because they still had some competencies. Denied.
At the root of this evil is a complicated mix of factors: the ugly suspicion that players are taking advantage and are overpaid, and old-fashioned skepticism that the effects of concussions aren’t so bad. “I think there’s still a great deal of uncertainty about the causation issue,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said coolly in a recently unsealed 2022 deposition, in which he also intimated that the players sign up for this kind of harm. “We all know there’s risks with playing football and other sports,” he said. “There’s risks to walking down the street.”
Actually, no, Commissioner, the NFL is not a risk like walking down the street. It’s an industry beset by a pervasive environmental hazard, a 100 percent injury rate and a special problem involving chronic traumatic encephalopathy from head injuries similar to those experienced by military personnel — and which can be dangerous not just for the players but for those around them.
But maybe what’s really at the heart of the matter is that the league has a black lung problem, and it knows it. That problem, if the NFL ever fully admitted it, could mean nearly unlimited financial exposure. That is perhaps why the owners have such a history of trying to limit injury compensation all along the line. Studies have shown that NFL players are four times as likely to suffer neurodegenerative disease than their peers. But most of these symptoms won’t manifest for 10 or 15 years, long after their five-year NFL health insurance has expired, at which point it’s difficult to get coverage. When players’ claims are denied and family members aren’t able to provide, where does the cost of their care fall? On you, the taxpayers. Medicare and Medicaid become the backstops.
Owners are gluttons for public assistance. They get all sorts of municipal funding and services, and it appears they want their ticket buyers to help them pick up the costs of player medical care, too. That’s not where the cost belongs.
The public has a couple of ways to leverage them. First, the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting committee, mostly made up of press, should not admit one more NFL owner until the concussion settlement has been reopened and the terms reformed. Believe it or not, influential owners will care as much about that as any penalty. Second, Congress should convene new hearings on the NFL’s attitudes and practices to determine whether there has been an effort to improperly suppress medical findings. Legislators also should ask owners to implement lifetime health coverage for players and threaten to regulate them if they won’t do it voluntarily.
The price of owning a coal mine is a lifetime of compensation for those who are permanently disabled by your coal dust. It should be the same with the NFL. If you want to own an NFL team — one that accepts all kinds of municipal aid and services free — you should cover the cost of ruin to players’ bodies and brains. After all, they aren’t just your workers. They’re the league’s chief commodities and treasures to their communities.