A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the NFL's landmark class-action settlement aimed at compensating its former players for the long-term health effects of repeated concussions.
The ruling by the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit served as an endorsement of a deal worth potentially as much as $1 billion and fashioned to end one of the most protracted and publicly debated fights in the history of the football league.
If no further appeals are filed, league retirees could begin receiving benefits within four months, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.
"This settlement will provide nearly $1 billion in value to the class of retired players," Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote in the court's opinion. "It is a testament to the players, researchers and advocates who have worked to expose the true human costs of a sport so many love."
While architects of the deal - a group of attorneys representing former players and lawyers for the NFL - hailed the opinion as a victory, their celebrations Monday were tinged with sadness.
The court's decision comes less than a month after the case's onetime lead plaintiff, former Philadelphia Eagle Kevin Turner, died at 46 from complications of Lou Gehrig's disease, a condition he blamed on repeated concussions he suffered in his eight seasons in the league.
"We will honor his memory and courage by continuing to fight for the best interests of all retired NFL players," Christopher Seeger, co-lead counsel for the retirees, said in a statement. "That means finalizing this agreement so they can receive the care and support that is so urgently needed."
Turner's father, Raymond, said his son was driven by a desire to help other former players suffering from neurocognitive disorders.
"I wish Kevin was here to learn the news," he said. "I know he would have been elated . . . because he fought so bravely on behalf of his fellow NFL alumni."
The agreement, initially approved by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody last year, had been challenged by a small group of retirees, who argued that it did not adequately compensate players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), one of the signature conditions tied to the athletes' concussions.
The degenerative brain disorder has been linked to the suicides of players including former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. It can only be diagnosed after death.
The settlement offers a $4 million payout to families of former players who were diagnosed before Brody approved the decision. But lawyers for the retirees who challenged the deal argued that it should do more to compensate those who may be diagnosed with CTE after that date.
They did not immediately return calls Monday on whether they would appeal the Third Circuit's ruling.
The deal's architects say its critics have fundamentally misunderstood what the settlement is designed to do.
They have described the agreement as a way of getting money into the hands of players now to alleviate their suffering from conditions such as dementia, depression, and mood disorders while they are still alive.
In its opinion Monday, the Third Circuit agreed, accusing the deal's critics of "making the perfect the enemy of the good."
"It is the nature of a settlement that some will be dissatisfied by the ultimate result," Ambro wrote.
Under the terms Brody approved last year, payouts as high as $5 million would go to the sickest players and their families. NFL auditors estimate that more than 6,000 of the living retirees could be eligible to collect an average payment of $190,000 over the next 65 years.
Notably, the settlement does not require the NFL to address allegations that have dogged it for years that top executives knew the risks of long-term complications from repeated concussions and hid them from players.
However, retirees who accept the deal would not have to prove in court that their mental impairments are directly tied to injuries sustained during their time playing professional football.
Former players would be compensated on a sliding scale based on age, the number of seasons played, and whether post-career injuries might have contributed to their diagnoses.
Maximum awards of $5 million would go to players under 45 who played five or more seasons in the league and require extensive treatment over their lifetimes for conditions such as Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease.
The deal also provides funds for medical monitoring of currently healthy former players and an additional $10 million to fund education and concussion research.
Of the 21,000 potentially eligible former players, fewer than 1 percent have opted out of the settlement agreement and chosen to take their chances alone in court.