A Forbes contributor, Patrick Rishe, went further, analyzing the economics from the players’ point of view. Rishe, a professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis, dissected the settlement to show that it cannot possibly cover the lost wages and medical bills the former players will face during their lifetimes.
Still, Rishe missed the big story by not asking an obvious question: If the settlement does not cover all the costs of medical care, much less lost future wages, who will bear that burden?
Ken Bensinger of the Los Angeles Times was the one major news outlet writer I found who wrote about that—although not until the 11th paragraph of his piece, and then only vaguely:
Advocates for the players argue that if they cannot file for cash compensation or medical coverage in California, many will be forced to fall back on taxpayer-funding public programs such as Medicaid and Social Security Disability.
Players excluded by the bill “who do not have private health insurance will become a burden on the state or federal system,” said Ron Mix, a hall of fame former NFL lineman who works in San Diego as a workers’ compensation attorney specializing in making claims for athletes.
That is the big story—the taxpayers will subsidize this settlement and may well pay most of the costs, far more than the wealthy owners of football teams. What the NFL has achieved, if the settlement is approved, is to shift costs from itself to the taxpayers, what I call “economic pollution” in my 2007 book Free Lunch.
Professor Daniel Goldberg, a lawyer-bioethicist who has examined the NFL concussion case issues, said they are just part of a broad pattern in the NFL and other industries of shifting costs onto taxpayers. In the current issue of the Journal of Legal Medicine, Goldberg examines how the NFL creates doubt about its responsibilities, writing that “the issues underlying the NFL concussion litigation are in fact legitimate public health problems, the implications of which go far beyond the private labor relationship between NFL players, their teams, and the league itself.”
The NFL is not alone in cost-shifting. Once a worker is declared totally disabled, any business, or its workers compensation insurance carrier, can easily shift the costs onto taxpayers by refusing to pay hospital and other bills, which are then picked up by Medicare—which is to say, by taxpayers. (I wrote about this trick to foist costs onto taxpayers in my 2012 book, The Fine Print).
For traumatic brain injury, medical researchers cite multi-million dollar lifetime costs at the high end, with low-end cost estimates of around $100,000. Those figures give some perspective to the average payout of less than $150,000 per former player covered by the settlement.
The big—and so far, untold—story about the proposed concussion settlement is that the NFL seeks to limit its cost while forcing taxpayers to pick up the rest of the tab. Those costs are likely to be multiples of the long, slow payout that under the proposed settlement will come to a small fraction of one percent of NFL revenues over the 20-year payout period. Reporters should examine who really benefits, and who is really burdened, in the tentative settlement that must go before Judge Anita B. Brody of United States District Court in Philadelphia for approval. Those who want to pursue this much bigger story might also study this very useful dataset posted by the LA Times listing every workers compensation claim filed in California by NFL players.
This is a significant story just waiting for reporters who will think and write not for the limited audience of football fans, but for the largest audience possible—taxpayers.
Related reads and resources:
• Sports subsidies are explored at the website Field of Schemes run by journalist Neill deMause.
• Professor Judith Grant Long, who teaches urban planning at Harvard University, analyzes sports subsidies in her book Public-Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities.
• Bruce Fisher, a former deputy executive of Erie County (NY), wrote recently for the Buffalo (NY) weekly Artvoice about sports subsidies not saving fans money.