Holler: Morally right, legally insignificant?

Brent Boyd

The case against the NFL brought by former players has a lot of merit on an emotional and human level. On a legal level, the affected former players may have a hard time getting what they seek.

On a day when there were more major signings, NFL owners had an eventful Tuesday, as a fight deserving of Michael Buffer holding the "L" on "Let's get ready to rumbl-l-l-l-l-l-l-e!" took place in, of all cities, Philadelphia.

Inaccurately known as the City of Brotherly Love – a more appropriate definition would be the City of Unholy Beat-Downs In the 600 Level – Philadelphia was the site Tuesday of the first big meeting on men in $5,000 suits and matching ties and pocket splash.

Judge Anita Brody heard arguments Tuesday from the NFL and a class-action group of more than 4,000 NFL players concerning the NFL's culpability for not diagnosing concussions in the formative years of the NFL becoming the financial juggernaut it is today.

It's a complicated and sometimes emotional battle. From a personal perspective, I teared up (that's a generous description of it) after interviewing Brent Boyd at a time when he was a lone candle in the wind seeking justice for his injuries at a time when the NFL denied any connection to playing the game and post-concussion symptoms. Boyd was in an a cappella group at that time. Now he has a loud chorus of backup singers in the choir. Boyd was right when he told Congress that the NFL's policy toward worker's compensation claims were characterized – in his words – as, "Delay, deny and hope they die."

On the other side of the coin is the legal question. It's not a coincidence that Lady Justice, the sculpture of a woman holding the scales of justice, is blindfolded. The intent of that symbolism is that a jury can only render a verdict on the facts presented. A former NFL player from the 1970s once posed the question to me, "Does Boeing owe former employees more benefits now because the company became successful?" That was a hard pill to swallow considering that, even in the 1970s and 1980s, there were enough former players suffering from dementia and game-related debilitation that an impartial juror could see the connection between playing NFL football and the results that have followed in post-football life for thousands of former players. Yet, what does the current NFL owe them? In the case of the Vikings, do you go after the "Gang of Ten" owners for restitution? Do you go after Red McCombs? Does Zygi Wilf owe you anything?

In the narrow myopia of the legal system, in the end, it will be almost impossible – whether the case goes to arbitration or is heard by a jury – for the players to win the court case based on the body of evidence that will be laid out. Why? The NFL, in front of a jury, can side with every point the former players make, but simply follow it up with the fact that, at the time the players in question suffered their injuries, medical technology wasn't what it is today.

If a player had knee surgery in 1975 and dons a pair of shorts, it looks like someone took a chainsaw to his knee. In technological terms, we were primitive in medical breakthroughs. Had Adrian Peterson been Chuck Foreman, his career could have ended at FedEx Field in December 2011. The players are morally in the right. That's a point that can't be refuted by rationale people. But Lady Justice will almost surely side with the NFL. They will have to render a verdict by the letter of the law and the evidence facing the players in the lawsuit has told them for 30 or 40 years that you can't win in court. If it goes to trial the NFL wins. In one of the more famous cases with the NFL in court, the league was lucky enough to have a Minnesota jury that said the USFL proved its case, but then gave them one dollar as compensation.

If there is any real justice, the NFL and the former players will reach an out-of-court settlement. The players in need of medical care can get the life-saving/prolonging/easing treatment they need and deserve. If the case continues to go forward – whether through arbitration or in a jury trial – nobody will win except for lawyers in $5,000 suits with matching ties and pocket splash.

That's not what Brent Boyd wanted. It's not what the NFL wants. If the NFL throws $1 billion on the table, the current league can survive the hit. That class-action contribution would help former players suffering and struggling to get the attention they need, but currently can't afford. It would be a public relations "win-win" for the league. And, in the process, would help out men who gave their bodies to entertain fans some much-needed closure to the pain the game caused them.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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