NEW YORK — The NFL may be on the hook for more money than it expected if a federal judge can't be convinced that its $765 million concussion settlement with more than 4,500 former players will be adequate to pay out benefits over the 65-year life of the agreement.
The deal hit a snag Tuesday when a federal judge asked both parties to back up their assertions that the agreement negotiated over several months is appropriate.
U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody denied a motion that was meant to serve as a preliminary approval for the settlement, seeking more information from the parties.
She wrote that she was "primarily concerned that not all retired NFL football players who ultimately receive a qualifying diagnosis or their (families) ... will be paid," and that the lawyers for both parties have not addressed those concerns.
Given the judge's ruling, the two sides will need to offer more evidence the fund will be sufficient or possibly have the NFL add money to the pot. Otherwise, they may be left to start over.
"We are confident that the settlement is fair and adequate, and look forward to demonstrating that to the court," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Meanwhile, former players looking to receive assistance for the injuries they sustained while playing in the league will have to wait to be compensated.
The two sides agreed in late August, just before the season kicked off and the issue largely went to the back burner, awaiting Brody's decision. The weekly accounting of brain injuries on the field, despite efforts to reduce them, continued to make headlines.
Brody pointed out that the class of approximately 20,000 could overwhelm the fund, even if only 10 percent of its members file claims against the $675 million set aside to pay claims, working out to $337,500 per player.
The maximum payments in the settlement include $5 million for a younger retiree with Lou Gehrig's disease, $3 million for serious dementia, and $25,000 for an 80-year-old with early dementia.
Sol Weiss, a lead lawyer for the ex-players, remained confident the class-action settlement will ultimately be approved.
"I am very confident that the (actuarial) people we used are right, and that there will be enough money to cover these claims for 65 years," Weiss said.
The remainder of the $765 settlement is being earmarked for neurological testing and education. Lawyers will be paid on top of that by the NFL, meaning the suit would cost the league $900 million — or about 10 percent of one year's annual revenues.
Brody also took issue with another part of the original agreement, writing in a footnote that she was concerned that the agreement prevents participants from suing the NCAA and other amateur football organizations.
"I'm not sure why the NFL would insist on that," said Gabe Feldman, a law professor who directs the sports law program at the Tulane University Law School.
More than 4,500 former players filed the suit, some accusing the league of fraud for its handling of concussions. They include former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers from dementia.
Brody's hand-picked mediator, former federal judge Layn R. Phillips, led several months of negotiations last year and has called the deal fair to both sides.
If and when the parties can satisfy all of Brody's concerns, she would then give preliminary approval to the settlement. Following that would be a hearing at which people with objections can speak and have their issues addressed before final settlement and payments.