HADDONFIELD, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey lawyer Craig Mitnick represents about 1,400 players in the NFL concussion lawsuit, from ex-quarterbacks Mark Rypien and Jeff Hostetler to practice squad unknowns. Some of his clients suffer from Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. Many more have significant dementia. Others simply fear the future.
Under a tentative settlement, the NFL would pay at least $765 million to compensate nearly 20,000 retired players over 65 years. U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody granted preliminary approval of the deal last month after the NFL removed a cap on the payouts. The settlement is designed to cover retired players who develop neurological problems believed to be caused by concussions sustained during their careers.
The proposed compensation grid weighs a man's age, cognitive condition and NFL experience. A young retiree with Lou Gehrig's disease would receive $5 million, a 50-year-old with Alzheimer's disease $1.6 million, and an 80-year-old with mild dementia $25,000. Those numbers are discounted for those who played fewer than five years.
Mitnick, 52, sat down with The Associated Press at his Haddonfield office this week to discuss the revised settlement. He will continue to meet with retired players' groups around the country before a Nov. 19 court hearing in Philadelphia, when Brody will evaluate the class-action plan and critics can challenge it. Players can then decide whether to opt out and perhaps sue the NFL on their own.
Q: What's new in the revised settlement?
A: The cap's huge. Now there's a guarantee that the money will never run out, as long as the NFL exists. I don't think the NFL is going anywhere.
(Players also now keep) the right to sue over non-cognitive things. That's a huge, huge change.
And the NFL's limit of 10 appeals (of player awards, per year) is out. They want to make sure that $2 billion doesn't go out to individuals who don't fit the intent of this settlement, or the criteria.
Q: Do players with relatively mild problems — those who can't remember why they entered a room — get enough compensation? What if they can't hold down a job?
A: I have concerns for some of the guys who are on the very border of their symptoms being severe enough that they would fit into some mild-to-moderate compensation. ... (But) they're protected. They may not get financial recovery right now, but as soon as those symptoms get any worse, they're absolutely going to fall in the mild-to-moderate (category), if not moderate-to-severe. They will be financially compensated and medically treated.
It really is an insurance policy, that if someone gets sick, they know that they have long-term care.
Q: Tell me about some of the players you represent.
A: They're gladiators at one point in their lives, and then they become broken soldiers who can't remember their names.
Imagine being a ball player, being in the limelight, having a certain lifestyle, having a certain expectation of how the future will be. And you wake up one day and say, "Where'd I put my keys or how did I get home?"
Or you find yourself in a worse situation, and your wife and your kids are gone, because they can't take the impulsivity or they can't take the rage.
The hell on the wives, that's another side of this story. They had to live day in and day out with the symptoms — depression, anxiety, rage, impulsivity, financial irresponsibility. They're all part of the disease.
Q: Compensation would depend on the age of diagnosis, but many people are never diagnosed until the disease progresses.
A: I absolutely see players going in (to the claims board) and saying: "Yes, we were actually diagnosed in 2000. However, I was exhibiting symptoms in 1995." I think it's going to play itself out over and over again.
When people start to exhibit symptoms of memory loss, of irritability, of rage, they don't go to a doctor and have a battery of tests done ... so someone on a piece of paper can write, "You have dementia."
The problem with a lot of these guys who had big names when they played, they still have endorsements, and businesses. It's walking a fine line.
Q: What's next?
A: We are beginning to educate and inform the players, first and foremost, and the public about how good of a settlement this really is under the circumstances — meaning ... the legal risks that both sides incurred. Players, if they understand the simplicity of the settlement, they're going to stay in it.
I think they're going to find by the time Nov. 19 comes along, that there is nowhere near the amount of players who are going to opt out as some believe.
Could the players have gotten more? Can't you always? But it's not about that.
All money can do is alleviate some of the stress, but it can't take away the problem, which is why medical monitoring ... and medical treatment are such important factors. They may be more important than the compensation.