Mark it down. Aug. 29, 2013, will go down as one of the most important days in the history -- and future -- of the National Football League.
There is no other way to view the league's settlement with more than 4,500 former players who had sued the league for damages associated with head injuries. The players, after all, alleged the league mistreated concussions by hiding the known risks involved. Conservative estimates assessed the league's potential liability at more than $2 billion, a total that struck fear among owners and gave rise to Armageddon scenarios that threatened the existence of the league.
Now, for about a third of that estimate, the league has settled the case before its dirty laundry was aired in court, and without admitting any guilt. (From the court document: "The settlement does not represent, and cannot be considered, an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football. Nor is it an acknowledgement by the plaintiffs of any deficiency in their case. Instead, it represents a decision by both sides to compromise their claims and defenses, and to devote their resources to benefit retired players and their families, rather than litigate these cases.")
It is no accident that most every on-field initiative of commissioner Roger Goodell in recent years could be directly connected to the concussion issue and its impact on league perception. New rules to change kickoffs and reduce helmet-to-helmet hits, along with substantial, new and more involved concussion protocol, were all advertised to increase player safety while also serving as evidence that -- whatever the claims of the former players -- the league was now taking dramatic steps to address, limit and treat head injuries.
The nightmare scenario, feared by owners and league officials alike, was a massive verdict in the concussion case followed by a retreat from insurance companies who back the game. Without insurance, what sort of business could the NFL run? No one wanted to think about that.
In essence, this settlement affirms the NFL's power position in the professional sports landscape now and in the future. The league agreed to compensation without admitting guilt, presumably closing the door on any past liability, while portraying itself as addressing the issue moving forward with all due responsibility.
An issue that has snaked through every pore of the league in recent years has been capped. The NFL can go forth with certainty and continued vigilance, but for now at least, with no fear about its future in American culture.