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Did the players get played?

8/30/2013 - NFL
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Rovell: A Bargain For The League

Darren Rovell reacts to the news that the NFL and former players agreed to settle concussion-related lawsuits for $765 million.

The most important thing to remember about leverage is that, for some people, it doesn't come around very often. You have to be ready to capitalize when it's on your side, and you definitely can't worry about how the other guy might feel in the end.

Smart businesspeople know leverage means everything in a public squabble. That's why it's so hard to fathom why the retired players suing the NFL over concussions were willing to squander the power they held.

Now that the players and the league have agreed to a tentative settlement of $765 million, somebody please explain why the players, who had more than 4,500 retirees in their ranks, didn't fight for more. It wasn't as if they were losing the battle of public opinion. Over the past year, every story about concussions and the NFL painted the league in a worse light. Even without tragedies such as the suicide of Junior Seau, clearly the league was looking bad in this controversy.

Revealing documentaries have aired on the subject. Investigative reports suggested the league has mismanaged its approach to concussion consequences, right down to the physicians who were asked to monitor the issue at one point. Publicly, commissioner Roger Goodell changed the rules of the game and increased the punishments for unnecessary violence. Privately, he might have hoped that such efforts would make people believe the league had always taken player safety seriously, long before he ever took office.

We now know that wasn't the case. Even if there are some retired players who jumped into this lawsuit to cash in on a potentially good deal, there are more than enough aging athletes who are facing legitimate issues because of the information they were given during their careers. The collateral damage from the league's negligence has become more visible with each passing year.

Of course, it's understandable if the players were advised to settle this case because it would lead to faster payouts to victims. According to reports, $675 million of that money will be used to compensate former players and the families of deceased players who suffered cognitive injury. The rewards for those men grappling with Alzheimer's (as much as $5 million), diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy after their deaths (as much as $4 million) and dementia (as much as $3 million) also will come in handy immediately. Players plagued by those problems are coping with issues no one should ever face.

But here's the important thing to remember: Some people were estimating the potential damages in a players' win at $2 billion. There's a lot more good that could have been done with that kind of money. On top of that, the league didn't have to admit any liability in the case. It can wash its hands of a messy problem while telling the whole world that it is prepared to handle this issue better going forward.

The problem with that is the players look like they got played. The easy read here is that this was only about the money for them, that everything was cool once the players saw a number that appeased their rank and file. Cash should've been just one consideration in this fight. From the outside looking in, this should have been about sticking it to a league that played hard and fast with their lives.

It says here that $765 million shouldn't cover that, especially when you're talking about a league that generates about $9 billion annually. There should have been a lot more money, a lot more blame, and an apology from the league and the owners. Those men get to return to the business of printing money and finding new ways to expand their game. We have no idea how many of those retirees involved in the lawsuit -- as well as current players -- will continue to have their lives altered by the game they loved to play.

The sad reminder is that little guys rarely win big fights. The players who jumped into this lawsuit may not have realized where this would lead, but they surely needed to be better prepared for where it ended up. The NFL, in a rare moment, was sweating over something that was spinning out of its control. The league couldn't keep defending itself against something that was indefensible.

Goodell is as savvy as they come when it comes to public relations, and he knows the league can't afford any more hits off the field. He understands how PEDs have plagued baseball, how hockey has lost its luster after too many labor stoppages, and how the NBA has sold its soul to big-market thinking and superstar coddling.

He couldn't have his league associated with a story that would never go away. Goodell knew that at some point, even in a league as powerful as the NFL, concussions were the one issue with the potential to debilitate his game.

It's too bad the players couldn't capitalize on that fear. If they realized it, they completely misplayed their hand. If they were concerned about how a long legal battle would affect the league's future, they picked the wrong fight in the first place. The minute those players decided to throw down with the league, they were engaging in a tussle that would define the sport for years to come.

Now that it's ending, few people will remember the payouts involved. They also aren't likely to hear much about where the other money is going ($75 million is being used for baseline medical exams, while $10 million is for research). All fans will know is that the players had a historic chance to give the NFL a lesson in what happens when you screw with people's lives. And the only message that was ultimately heard was a familiar one: Everything has a price tag.