Column: Easy to declare a winner in NHL concussion lawsuit

November 17, 2018

At the Stanley Cup Finals earlier this year, Commissioner Gary Bettman couldn't talk enough about the feel-good story of the Vegas Golden Knights and the NHL's role in bringing major league sports to Las Vegas.

When it came to a question about concussions and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Bettman wasn't nearly as chatty.

"There's nothing new on the subject," Bettman said before turning to Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and asking, "Do you want to answer that?"

Daly didn't, though he did note that the NHL believes there's not enough scientific information to draw a definite link between concussions and CTE.

"This is not the commissioner's view, it's the science view," Daly said.

No big surprise there, since Bettman and Daly run a league that has tolerated — and tacitly condoned — players hitting each other in the head ever since the era of the league's Original Six began in 1942. And it is true that while there is increasing research that indicates concussions can cause CTE, there is a lot more researchers need to learn about head injuries before establishing it as a scientific fact.

Still, the NHL moved this week to settle a lawsuit from former players who accused the league of failing to warn them about the dangers of concussions and about the risks of playing hockey. The league agreed to settle with retired players in a deal that could net each $22,000 and make them eligible for up to $75,000 in medical treatment.

That's not much for players who got their brains scrambled playing the hard-nosed sport of hockey. More importantly, perhaps, is that it's not an admission that the league did anything wrong, with the NHL not acknowledging any liability.

It's simply a way to move on, with a token payment to the 318 retired players settling the legal score.

The total cost to the NHL is $18.9 million, a far cry from the NFL concussion settlement that covers 20,000 former players with payouts expected to top $1.5 billion over 65 years. As of last month, the NFL concussion lawsuit claims panel had already approved more than $500 million in awards and paid out $330 million.

One reason the numbers are so different is that the NFL is a much bigger league than the NHL, generating about three times the revenue that major league hockey does. Another is that a federal judge denied class-action status in July for the lawsuit, preventing another potential 5,000 retired players from being involved.

The main reason, though, is that while the NFL attitude toward concussions softened over the years, the NHL wasn't about to change its stance that there isn't enough evidence to show that blows taken to the head led to brain damage.

"When you have a defendant who has spent millions of dollars litigating a case for four years to prove that nothing is wrong with getting your brain bashed in, you can only get so far," players' attorney Stuart Davidson told The Associated Press. "I think it's important for players who have an opportunity to settle their case with the NHL now to understand that before they get anything through a trial against the NHL, it's going to cost millions of dollars in experts to get there, and that's going to have to be paid for before they see a penny from any recovery, assuming they win."

In other words, a token settlement is better than no settlement at all.

The NHL will end up spending the equivalent of the salaries of one first line over a year to get rid of a problem that could have vexed the league for many years. It did so without having to acknowledge that high-speed collisions and ubiquitous fighting could lead to brain problems later in life.

Bettman's hard-line approach paid off, and that's no surprise.

This is a commissioner, you might recall, who canceled an entire season rather than let players get paid what they're worth. The lawsuit had already dragged on for four years, and with the NHL fighting it every step of the way, there wasn't much appetite among attorneys and most former players to take it further.

In the end, the players will get some medical testing and a few dollars. The NHL, meanwhile, will get protection from further suits at a small cost.

Pretty easy to figure out the winner in this one.

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