Amid the many troubling headlines surrounding the National Football League the last several weeks, you might have missed this sobering fact: Experts predict that nearly three in 10 former NFL players will develop serious cognitive problems — dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS — in their lifetime.
As a nine-year veteran of the NFL, those odds are terrifying. I worry about what would happen if I was diagnosed with one of these conditions and the burden it would have on my family — how they would keep up with medical bills and also take care of themselves.
This alarming statistic — derived from actuarial reports that were released as part of the concussion settlement between the NFL and retired players — only underscores the importance and necessity of the agreement that now awaits final approval, more than three years after the first lawsuits were filed.
Fortunately, I am not currently suffering from dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS, which means that I, like most retired players, don’t stand to immediately receive any money under this agreement. What I will receive is just as valuable: a baseline exam to determine if I am suffering from any cognitive impairment, as well as access to a 65-year, uncapped compensation program that offers peace of mind to all retired players who worry that we might eventually be one of the three in 10 suffering from these serious conditions.
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No step in the road toward these benefits has come easily, however, and even today there are still calls for players to reject this settlement and return to the long, uncertain path of litigation. Indeed, a very small group of retired players has used a distorted reading of the settlement to try to recruit objectors. Their complaints, however well intentioned, are not only misguided but misunderstand the entire purpose of this agreement.
Take, for example, the concerns they raise about the way Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is treated by the settlement. Currently, there’s no medically accepted way to diagnose CTE, except after death. This settlement, however, will provide compensation and medical care to retired players who are diagnosed with many symptoms of neurocognitive decline now and in the future — without the need to prove that those symptoms stem from playing in the NFL. We should not have to wait for benefits while the complicated and often-conflicting science on CTE continues to evolve.
Similarly, some have claimed that not enough former players will receive immediate compensation. But how can anybody say that when we now know that approximately 6,000 retired players are expected to someday develop a severe neurocognitive disease? Let me be clear: I hope that I never receive any compensation from this settlement because it will mean I never developed dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS. But I can’t predict the future; none of us can, and that’s why this settlement is indispensible.
The vast majority of former players I have spoken with rejects these shortsighted arguments against the settlement. We signed on to this litigation to obtain security, care, and protection for the future to the men and families in deserving need. We never saw this as a route to an easy paycheck, and anyone who did misunderstood what this lawsuit was all about.
Indeed, more than 5,000 plaintiffs joined this lawsuit to get care to the former players who needed it, and this show of strength is what forced the NFL to come to the negotiating table and agree to this settlement. No settlement is perfect, but that doesn’t change the reality that many retired players are sick today, and the NFL is not going to simply hand out more money to anyone who asks for it. If our past experience with the NFL is any indication, it will fight for years against every player who opts out of this settlement.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for our sickest teammates. Since waiting is not an option, we must band together to support this agreement in order to get much-needed help to retired players and improve our health and financial security for the future.
I have never regretted my decision to play in the NFL, but — knowing what I know now — I have to live with the uncertainty of my future. The settlement is a safety net for the sick and dying men of today and for the thousands more who will likely be diagnosed in the coming years. I will not roll the dice on my future or anyone else’s.
Shawn Wooden spent nine seasons in the NFL playing safety for the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears. He is one of the subclass representatives in the NFL concussion litigation.