The National Football League agreed Thursday to spend $765 million in compensation and diagnostic fees for retired players who develop dementia and other brain disorders as a result of concussions suffered on the field.
The agreement was part of a lawsuit settlement that still requires the approval of a federal judge. The settlement, announced in Philadelphia after months of court-ordered mediation, came a week before the start of the 2013 NFL season.
All former NFL players are eligible to seek care, screening or compensation. The amounts they receive will be based on their age, condition and years of play. Current players are not covered.
More than 4,500 former athletes — some suffering from dementia, depression or Alzheimer’s that they blamed on blows to the head — have joined suits against the NFL since the first case was filed in Philadelphia in 2011. They accused the league of concealing the long-term dangers of concussions and rushing injured players back onto the field while glorifying and profiting from the game’s violence.
The settlement would cover all 18,000 former NFL players. The vast majority of the $765 million would go to compensate athletes with certain neurological ailments; $75 million would be set aside for medical exams and $10 million for medical research.
“The NFL did the right thing today,’’ said former Bucs tight end Jimmie Giles, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit settled Thursday. “A lot of former players are in bad shape and this will allow the game of pro football to move ahead with its unbelievable popularity.’’
Individual payouts would be capped at $5 million for players with Alzheimer’s disease, $4 million for those diagnosed after their deaths with a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and $3 million for players with dementia, said lead plaintiffs’ lawyer Christopher Seeger.
In reaching the settlement, the $9 billion league admitted no wrongdoing.
“This agreement lets us help those who need it most and continue our work to make the game safer for current and future players,” NFL executive vice president Jeffrey Pash said in a statement. “We thought it was critical to get more help to players and families who deserve it rather than spend many years and millions of dollars on litigation.”
The plaintiffs include Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the family of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.
Kevin Turner, a former running back with the Patriots and Eagles who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, thanked the two sides for reaching an agreement.
“Chances are ... I won’t make it to 50 or 60,” said Turner, now 44. “I have money now to put back for my children to go to college and for a little something to be there financially.”
Players’ lawyers said they expect the fund to cover the ex-athletes’ expenses for 65 years.
The NFL Players Association appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach.
“All of the plaintiffs involved are part of our player community, and we look forward to learning more about the settlement,” the NFLPA said in a statement.
Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody announced the proposed agreement and will consider approving it at a later date.
The settlement likely means the NFL won’t have to disclose internal files about what it knew, and when, about concussion-linked brain problems.
“It’s a positive step for the league because you want to bring recognition to the problems of concussions,’’ said another plaintiff, former Bucs tight end Dave Moore. “I’ve had 14 surgeries and they are all very measurable. You know from history what’s going to happen to you down the road. You might wind up in a wheelchair, you might wind up with artificial joints.
“The problem with concussions is you don’t know the long-term effects. It’s the fear of the unknown. Am I going to wake up 10 or 15 years down the road and not know my family members? What this settlement will do is draw the right kind of attention to the issue.’’
In court arguments before Brody in April, the NFL asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuits and send them to arbitration under terms of the players’ contract. The league argued that individual teams bear the chief responsibility for health and safety under the collective bargaining agreement, along with the players’ union and the players themselves.
But the players’ lawyers accused the NFL of concealing for decades studies linking concussions to neurological problems.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other athletes who suffered concussions have been diagnosed after their deaths with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, including Seau.
The number of claims, including spouses and survivors, could top 20,000, the NFL said.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly stated that player safety is the league’s highest priority. In recent years, the NFL has instituted additional rule changes designed to eliminate hits to the head and neck and to protect defenseless players.
Clubs are routinely reminded about the dangers of head injuries and the importance of vigilance in preventing athletes who have had concussions from playing or practicing until they are fully recovered. Independent neurologists must be consulted before a player can return to action.
One key rule change that takes effect this season prohibits ball carriers from using the crown of the helmet to make contact with defenders.
“This was a good day for all involved,’’ said Giles, inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor in 2011. “It returns the focus to the football field, where it belongs.’’
Information from Tribune wires contributed to this report.