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FENNO: To suffering families, NFL concussion settlement feels like vindication
Shock clung to Lisa McHale's words.
News of the proposed $765 million settlement to the long-running NFL concussion litigation arrived in a Thursday afternoon phone call from a reporter to her Tampa, Fla., home.
And as they often do, McHale's thoughts returned to her late husband.
Tom McHale grew up in Gaithersburg, played for Maryland and Cornell, then spent 87 games as an offensive lineman with the Buccaneers, Eagles and Dolphins. In 2008, he died of a prescription drug overdose at age 45 and was later diagnosed with the devastating neurodegenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
A wrongful-death lawsuit Lisa McHale filed against the NFL 13 months ago described the vibrant, thoughtful man who she met at Cornell being swallowed by "cognitive problems ... depression, paranoia, anxiety, irritability, forgetfulness, confusion, impaired judgment, delusions."
"He never had an inkling at all that any of this had an impact on him," McHale said. "When case upon case built up, at some point somebody finally had to say enough is enough. There's an issue there, and the NFL can't deny this any longer.
"There was nothing, nothing more lonely, scary and just that feeling of being alone and not knowing where to turn. And to know that now, thank God, there will be programs in place, there will be providers who can help these guys."
The story is one among more than 4,600 former players who sued the NFL over brain injuries since 2011. Eighty of them, like Tom McHale, are dead. Sixteen have passed since January.
McHale, who works for the Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute that helped reveal her husband's brain disease, expected the litigation to be tied up in court for years. The outlines of a settlement seemed too distant to even imagine.
But Judge Anita Brody of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered the parties to mediation in July and at 2 a.m. Thursday the deal that covered the estimated 15,000 retired players came together. The agreement erased the NFL's lingering public relations headache along with the troublesome threat of unseemly documents emerging during discovery, as happened last month in the NCAA's concussion lawsuit.
So, the NFL's human toll became a series of black and white numbers, the brutal business of fixing a price tag on suffering that sprawled through generations. Lou Gehrig's disease? A cap of $5 million. CTE? That's $4 million. Dementia? That's $3 million.
McHale didn't obsess over the numbers. Didn't care that the $675 million of the settlement allocated to compensate former players and their families is a fraction of the NFL's $9.5 billion revenues in 2012.
Compensation goes to former players fighting these problems, not ones worried about the landmine of the next 10, 15, 20 years.
"Everybody seems to think this is a tremendous coup for the league because, with the numbers, this is a drop in the bucket," McHale said. "My feeling is that for the families who are suffering, this is huge. They ultimately don't care what the impact is on the NFL. They're in this because they have a great need."
In recent months, attorneys for the plaintiffs maintained a sense of urgency in private and public to get money to assist former players suffering today rather than gamble on a drawn-out federal court proceeding in a complex and uncertain case.
Those players aren't hard to find. Former Eagles fullback Kevin Turner spoke slowly about the settlement over the phone Thursday. Each quivering word felt like a struggle.
"I hope everyone can understand me," he said. "It's difficult to be speaking. I'm excited today, for sure."
The excitement, though, disappeared in each gut-wrenching sentence. Every minute or two, his Alabama drawl peeked through, then disappeared. The 44-year-old was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 2010. The disease's progression has made speaking difficult.
"I don't like listening to myself talk," Turner said. "I imagine it drives y'all crazy, too."
He isn't alone. Six other former players are living with Lou Gehrig's disease, too. That doesn't touch the scores of others with Alzheimer's, dementia, Parkinson's disease or other cognitive impairment.
This feels like victory, vindication to McHale. That something is being done. The NFL didn't admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but the cash points to the reality: there's a sprawling problem that can't be ignored.
Each Saturday and Sunday used to mean football to McHale. She loved the game. Supported her husband. Dreamed of watching her sons play in college. That's all been ripped away.
"I have trouble enjoying it," she said. "When I watch it, I see the hits. I see the players. I know they're going home to wives and families and I know what the long-term repercussions can be. I wish that I could enjoy that the way I used to."
That's part of football's toll, too. Maybe others can be helped. Maybe others won't have to endure what she did.
"I wish none of this were true," she said, "so I could have that all back."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
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