the NFL and ALS …
Kevin Turner, a former N.F.L. player who has A.L.S., receiving help with shaving at his Florida home. CreditJosh Ritchie for The New York Times
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Kevin Turner and Sean Morey played a combined 17 years in the N.F.L.They were never teammates, but they became friends in 2010 when they worked with the Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee for disabled retirees. They consulted with doctors studying the effects of concussions on football players. Morey raised money for Turner’s foundation after Turner received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., four years ago.
So in January, before Morey joined six other former N.F.L. players to file an objection to the proposed settlement in a lawsuit that includes a promise by the league to compensate retirees with severe neurological problems, he called Turner to explain why he was taking a step that might delay much-needed money for Turner.
“My heart bleeds for Kevin,” said Morey, who said the settlement was flawed primarily because it covered too few conditions. “We both want what’s fair, adequate and reasonable, but unfortunately his condition is much more urgent.”
Turner (34) playing for the Eagles. He believes his condition was caused by hits to the head.CreditEzra O. Shaw/Allsport
Turner, 45, and Morey, 38, represent opposite views on whether players should accept the settlement; opt out and retain their right to sue the N.F.L.; or object and perhaps appeal to a higher court.
The debate is real now that 20,000 retired players and their beneficiaries are being sent an outline of the settlement, which is full of legal and medical jargon, descriptions of an assessment program and tables showing who is eligible for an award.
The decision about whether to accept or reject the deal, though, will present a moral quandary: Should the players accept a limited settlement so that people like Turner can get help quickly, or should they fight for something better and perhaps slow the distribution of payments to those in need?
Turner, who could receive as much as $5 million, said that he understood that the deal was not perfect, but that he wanted the retirees to accept it so he and others could get help sooner.
“I can empathize with players” who want a better settlement, Turner said as he sat in his living room in Port St. Lucie, his arms and hands largely inert, his neck stooped and his speech slurred. “But for me and people like me, time is a luxury we don’t have.”
At some level, all class-action settlements require plaintiffs to weigh their personal interests against those of a larger group, along with the odds of getting a better deal by fighting an uncertain court battle.
In cases involving, for example, faulty washing machines or billing errors by a bank, the calculus is often clear. But the N.F.L. concussion settlement involves emotional nuance because the retirees were teammates, friends and union members who are bonded by a sport that in many ways has shaped them as adults.
“This is not like a group of people randomly thrown together in an accident,” said Alan Morrison, who teaches at the George Washington University Law School and has worked on class-action settlements. “Many of them played together, and they’ve seen what’s happening to their friends, but nobody knows if they’ll have the same problems.”
Turner, the lead plaintiff in the suit filed by about 5,000 former players who accused the league of hiding the dangers of concussions from them, has deteriorated to the point where he needs a full-time nurse. He cannot help but see the settlement as a salve for players in dire need.
“It’s about helping people who had their brains affected in a very drastic way, and to make their lives so much more livable, not just them but their families, and to supplement their health care,” said Turner, who added that he wanted to use his award to cover his medical expenses and leave something for his three children.
Turner using an iPad in his Florida home. He said he viewed the settlement in terms of “how it would help me live longer.” CreditJosh Ritchie for The New York Times
Like many football players trained to follow orders, Turner wrestled with whether to sue the league that had helped him realize his lifelong dream. He began playing at 5 years old, starred for the Alabama Crimson Tide and played fullback for eight seasons for the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.
He also sustained more concussions than he can count. In 2009 he started having trouble playing guitar. A few months later, he had vertebrae in his neck fused to repair a football injury, and his ability to control his hands declined to the point where he no longer could write. The next year, doctors said that he had A.L.S.
Turner, who declared bankruptcy in 2009 when his home-building business failed, was living with friends. He began to study his disease. He went to Boston University, where doctors were doing cutting-edge research on the effects of repeated brain trauma, and spoke to the Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which Morey was part of.
Turner said he believed his A.L.S. had been caused in part by the head hits he absorbed. As he began to see the links between his injuries and his condition, he was convinced that the N.F.L. had played a role, too.
“I remember times when I went back into games when I shouldn’t have,” said Turner, who has stopped his two sons from playing football. “I wasn’t given all the information to make that decision for myself.”
After turning down invitations to join a lawsuit, he sued the league in 2011. Given his diagnosis and the difficulty of winning a case against the league, he did not expect to see its conclusion. At least, he thought, his children might get some money.
Turner receives money from two N.F.L. plans for retirees with disabilities, yet the bills still pile up. He had to remodel his bathroom, buy new furniture and pay for nurses and trips to see doctors. He receives experimental therapies designed to slow the deterioration of his muscles, and he hopes to receive stem-cell treatments that could cost about $75,000.
Turner can still walk, but his upper body does not respond well. He uses an iPhone and can send text messages, but his voice is so garbled that the Siri program no longer understands his voice commands. But Turner, who was the subject of the documentary “American Man,” takes his role as lead plaintiff seriously. Last month, he went to Washington to appear at a Senate hearing on concussions in sports.
“I never imagined myself being part of something of this proportion,” Turner said. “Everyone is focusing on the number and how much am I going to get. But I am looking at it as how it would help me live longer.”
Morey, who experiences chronic headaches and irritability from the concussions he sustained, wants Turner to get what he deserves. But the deal, which may still be altered, has too many flaws to ignore, said Morey, who did not sue but is covered by the settlement, as all retirees are.
Many retirees will receive no awards because so few illnesses are covered in the deal, he said, and those in the worst shape, including some who are mentally impaired, will have to jump through many hoops to get awards. The plaintiffs’ lawyers did not disclose how they had reached the settlement, which makes it hard to know whether they got as much as they could have, and they rushed to settle so they could get paid, Morey said.
“At the end of the day, players just want a fair shake,” said Morey, who played nine seasons with four teams before retiring after the 2009 season. “In my mind, this is everything the N.F.L. wanted.”