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Settlement Leaves Fans at a Moral Crossroads
2013-09-16

The simple answer is that football is a powerful lure, a fascinating social institution that speaks volumes about the American psyche.

The more complex answer is that football is in my blood. I played the game from sixth grade through college. I knew early on that football was violent, and I have close friends who suffer from chronic ailments because of their participation. On the other hand, the game has its own code of ethics: you accept the risks, and scholarships and contracts are hazard pay.

Two weeks ago, the N.F.L. agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 plaintiffs who had sued the league, contending their health problems were the result of their years in professional football. By settling, the former players and their families won immediate financial assistance for pressing and sometimes costly medical problems. However, they lost a golden opportunity to learn more about what might have caused them.

A trial would have forced the N.F.L. to make a concession similar to the one made years ago by the tobacco industry. That industry was ultimately forced to agree with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases like lung cancer than nonsmokers. There is no safe cigarette.

I had wanted to hear that kind of point-blank honesty from the N.F.L.: an acknowledgment of a correlation between violent collisions and long-term physical and mental health problems. There is no safe way to play football.

The N.F.L. has not come close to admitting its possible culpability in the debilitating injuries sustained by former players. Because of this settlement, it probably wont have to.

By accepting the leagues settlement offer, the former players and by extension current players have spoken: they know what they signed up for and are willing to take the risks. Without admitting guilt or revealing what it might have known about head injuries, the N.F.L. agreed to pay for the outcome of those risks. The settlement was a game-changer in the discussion about head injuries and player safety, and for the N.F.L., it came with a relatively cheap price tag.

The N.F.L. generates nearly $10 billion in annual revenue. The $765 million settlement represents less than half of the $1.9 billion the league receives annually just from ESPN for the rights to Monday Night Football. Even better for the league, information that might have been exposed during the lawsuits discovery process information that might have showed that the league knew more than it let on about long-term consequences of head injuries may never be revealed.

Before the agreement, fans could stand shoulder to shoulder with the retired players who were demanding money and disclosure of what the league knew about concussions, and when. The players contended they had been lied to and misled. Those pushing for answers could claim that they held the moral high ground.

The settlement has left critics of football stranded on a moral island, though I suspect a large number have not lost much sleep over the moral and ethical costs of Americas brutal pastime.

I think the fans have read about it, they think about it for about a week and they dont think about it anymore because the product is still there, said Roman Oben, a 12-year N.F.L. veteran now working as an analyst for MSG Network.

For at least a decade, fans have been exposed to dreary statistics about debilitating injuries, and they have seen a parade of retired players who continue to pay a physical and emotional price for their lives in the game.

They say, Thats awful, but the Redskins are playing the Cowboys, Oben said. Let me turn the game on. Its 1 oclock.

A lot of fans say: I cant save the world. I cant stop poverty and bring about world peace. Its out there, but I cant do anything about it except go to work, save my paycheck, pay for my DirecTV package and keep it moving.

The settlement has put all of us who watch pro football on a moral hot seat. Former players have taken the money, leaving the fans three ways to rationalize their addictive zeal for these weekly spectacles.

You love the product and dont really care about its costs.

You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.

You will walk away.

I will continue to cover football as one who appreciates the opportunities the game has provided and as a cultural critic who thinks that football is merely evidence of erosion in the American soul. But the moral pendulum has swung from the owners, the executives and the players who produce footballs violence to the millions who consume it.

The league wins again, and fans are left to find their way out of a deepening moral and ethical quandary.