By Curtis Skinner
(Reuters) - The National Football League has agreed to remove a $675 million ceiling it had placed on payments to former players who were part of a groundbreaking lawsuit over concussions suffered on the field, it said on Wednesday.
The NFL's agreement removes a major hurdle in reaching a settlement with thousands of retired players by ensuring payments to those who develop certain neurocognitive conditions including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. A federal judge hesitated to sign off on an earlier deal because she worried the money set aside by the league would be insufficient to pay all the affected players.
Under the revised terms between the NFL and the former players who brought the suit, payments of up to $5 million will be guaranteed to any retired player who develops the neurological illnesses. Payments will be based on a formula that considers years played in the league and their age at diagnosis. The fund is set to last 65 years from when it is authorized.
The deal was reached under the supervision of U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, who presided over the case and had expressed earlier concerns. Brody must still finalize the agreement, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania for preliminary approval.
"This modification will allay any fears that this fund will not last for its intended lifespan," said Christopher Seeger, an attorney for the players, during a teleconference with reporters. "If an eligible retired player develops a qualifying condition, this fund will be there for him. Period."
Both sides said they were confident in their earlier award estimates and did not say how much the revision could add to the cost of the settlement. An analysis by the New York Times, however, estimated that costs to the NFL could exceed $1 billion.
4,500-PLUS IN ORIGINAL SUIT
The previous settlement was worth a total of $765 million, including the $675 million set aside for benefit payments. The remainder of the money was earmarked for baseline medical testing and safety education initiatives.
The more than 4,500 players who initially brought the suit accused the league of hiding the dangers of brain injury while profiting from the sport's violence. The NFL sought to settle the case to 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.
A growing body of academic research shows that repeated hits to the head can lead to a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can cause aggression and dementia.
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 chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The research already has prompted the NFL to make changes in play, including banning the most dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits and requiring teams to keep players off the field if they have taken hits to the head and show symptoms such as memory gaps or dizziness.
"We are eager to move forward with the process of court approval and implementation of the settlement," NFL Senior Vice President Anastasia Danias said in a statement.
Family members of deceased players will be allowed to pursue claims, the statement said.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Kelley in Philadelphia; Editing by Susan Heavey, Cynthia Osterman and Bill Trott)