Former players: Devil is in the details with NFL concussion settlement
Don't try telling former NFL players union president Kevin Mawae that Thursday's concussion litigation settlement was an even-handed resolution to the most contentious and significant issue facing the sport as the NFL's 2013 regular season looms.
Mawae, a retired 16-year NFL veteran and two-term NFLPA president, said only the ex-players in the most dire need of financial and medical assistance truly won a victory with Thursday's announcement of a $765 million mediated settlement.
"I think the league won big on this, because the players settled for a pittance,'' Mawae told SI.com, on the phone from his home near Baton Rouge, La. "It's a relative drop in the bucket. I'm not going to say the players caved, because it would do an injustice to the older men who really need the help now, but at some point in time, the collective body of players, retired and active, have got to be willing to go all the way to the wall with this issue.
"They didn't this time. The league won this hands down. I know as soon as you print that there's going to be a bunch of former players pissed off at me for saying that, but it's true. The league won.''
Mawae, the former Seahawks', Jets' and Titans' center, did not add his name to the list of roughly 4,500 ex-NFL players who sued the league over the effects of brain injuries they contend were incurred on the field, saying he knew football posed inherent risks all along, but they were worth the rewards.
But the settlement is a setback for players in the long run, Mawae said, because it keeps the NFL from having to release information in court about what it knew in regards to the connection between brain injuries and football, and when it knew it. And that opportunity lost represents a discovery process that can't have a dollar value placed upon it.
"Everybody had been asking me what was going to happen with the lawsuit, and I've said all along they're going to settle it,'' said Mawae, who retired after the 2009 season.
"Because in the end, settling it for however much money is a whole lot better for the league than giving up everything they have as far as information and potentially harming the shield for good. There's too much potential for information that could have done damage to the NFL, and it's better to just pay it off with $765 million, plus court costs.''
The NFL's class of elderly retired players understandably cannot be blamed for not being able to afford to take the long view in regards to the concussion litigation settlement. The different agendas between that group of ex-players, and those of Mawae's era, made Thursday's development capable of being seen from vastly different perspectives.
"If it helps the neediest men, in the most dire situations, then, yes, it's a good day,'' Mawae said. "But it depends on how long it takes for them to get that money. If those guys who are destitute, or have no insurance, or have struggles with dementia, if they can get this help immediately, that's a positive. Especially the older players who helped lay the foundation of this game. We owe them that.''
But today's players, and those recently retired, lost out, Mawae said.
"The guys who need it now won, but the rest of us have lost the ability to take the bully behind the shed,'' he said. "From my standpoint, I'd rather take the bully behind the shed and beat the crap out of him, and let him know he can't bully us around. But now, essentially what we've done is taken a little bit of our milk money back and gotten the promise that he won't touch us again.
"But there's no ability to go and finish off the fight. The league, at the end of the day, was willing to spend $765 million, plus another $200 million in legal fees, and that's like spending the Jacksonville Jaguars in order to not have to divulge information you had that the players could have used to finish the fight. It's like taking it 99 yards, but not getting that last yard.''
Several ex-NFL players SI.com spoke to acknowledged that the devil is in the details in a deal as complicated as the concussion litigation settlement, and said they are still waiting to see if the agreement can be executed swiftly and fairly. One of those was ex-Bucs defensive lineman Chidi Ahanotu, 42, a 12-year NFL veteran who signed his name to the concussion litigation and recruited ex-Tampa Bay teammates Hardy Nickerson, Eric Curry and Mike McGruder to do the same.
"It's decent money, but the key part of this will be the people who determine who qualifies and who's eligible,'' said Ahanotu, who played for five teams between 1993-2004, spending nine seasons in Tampa Bay. "If it's like the NFL's disability benefit program, this isn't a win for the players. That panel denies most requests. We have access to the benefits, but that doesn't mean you get them.
"That's why the jury is still out on this. I want to say we won, but you can't do that until you see how this money can be accessed and by whom. The fact that this money is here is great, but [how the money is distributed] is the most important part of the process. That's everything.''
Ahanotu said he has suffered from memory loss and a lack of mental clarity since his playing career ended, and worries that his long NFL career will lead to future cognitive issues. He was not surprised by Thursday's settlement, but thought the negotiation process would take longer.
"I was expecting them to settle, because it's just a PR nightmare for the NFL,'' he said. "Now that the season is close to starting, the league doesn't want this issue looming over everything. But I thought it'd take longer than this.''
Reached as he was about to go on Fox Sports1 to talk about the concussion litigation settlement, former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now an NFL analyst on that network, was trying to quickly digest the news and impact of the agreement.
"It looks good on paper, and the press release sounds fantastic, all that kind of stuff,'' said Fujita, who did not join the lawsuit. "But we're all trying to figure out the details and what they mean. That will tell the story.''
Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, himself a former NFL quarterback of 17 seasons, called the settlement a potential "win-win for both sides,'' in that it hopefully allows for closure for the league and its players on this issue.
"Any time you can get care to the ex-players who are really needing it, that's a phenomenal thing,'' said Wilson, who did not join the lawsuit and said he didn't even know any former teammates who had. "I really do think it's a good day for the NFL, because any time there's litigation out there and you get it resolved, it's a plus. Hopefully now we can start to put it behind us and move on to football and the games.''