The NFL and more than 4,500 former players want to resolve concussion-related lawsuits with a $765 million settlement that would fund medical exams, compensation and medical research, a federal judge said Thursday.
The plaintiffs include at least 10 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett. They also include Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon and the family of Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year.
Many former players with neurological conditions believe their problems stem from on-field concussions. The lawsuits accused the league of hiding known risks of concussions for decades to return players to games and protect its image.
The NFL has denied any wrongdoing and has insisted that safety has always been a top priority.
The news comes just a week after sports network ESPN stopped participating in a "Frontline" documentary, due out in October, on the NFL’s response to concussions in the game. The league pressured the network to stop working with "Frontline" on the investigative project, The New York Times reported.
The settlement likely means the NFL won't have to disclose internal files about what it knew, and when, about concussion-linked brain problems. Lawyers had been eager to learn, for instance, about the workings of the league's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which was led for more than a decade by a rheumatologist.
In court arguments in April, NFL lawyer Paul Clement asked senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody to dismiss the lawsuits and send them to arbitration under terms of the players' contract. He said 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.
Players lawyer David Frederick accused the league of concealing for decades studies that linked concussions to neurological problems.
Brody announced the proposed settlement after months of court-ordered mediation. She still must approve it at a later date.
The judge had initially planned to rule in July, but then delayed her ruling and ordered the two sides to meet to decide which plaintiffs, if any, had the right to sue. She also issued a gag order, so it has been unclear in recent weeks whether any progress was being made.
The lawyers were due to report back to her Tuesday, but Brody instead announced in court files that the case had been settled.
In recent years, a string of former NFL players and other concussed athletes have been diagnosed after their deaths with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
The disease causes a gradual degradation of the brain, with symptoms that might not emerge until years after the trauma occurred.
"The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia," according to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
The ex-players who were found to have CTE included Seau and lead plaintiff Ray Easterling, who filed the first suit in Philadelphia in August 2011 but later committed suicide.
About one-third of the league's 12,000 former players have joined the litigation since 2011. They include a few hundred "gap" players, who were active during years when there was no labor contract in place, and were therefore considered likely to win the right to sue.
The timing of the settlement allowed the NFL to drop the issue from the national conversation before the start of the new season.
All 32 clubs were scheduled to play their final exhibition games Thursday night, in preparation for the start of the regular season next week. The first real game is next Thursday, with the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens playing at the Denver Broncos.
Concussions -- and the former players' lawsuits -- had become a main theme of recent NFL seasons, with players, coaches and league officials all forced to address the topic repeatedly, especially as new plaintiffs came forward on nearly a weekly basis.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press