NFL players with brain trauma receive notice of settlements stripped to nothing

For debilitated and often-broke former football players and their families, the National Football League's agreement to pay more than $1 billion in a settlement for victims of chronic brain trauma appeared to be the end of the battle that had consumed them for years.

The money was supposed to provide a measure of peace and stability for the wives, widows and children of tormented players who had died young or are fading away in nursing homes. Not disclosed, however, is the significant portion of the fund that is being withheld from those it was promised.

As the award notifications begin to trickle out, some of the recipients have been stunned to find they may receive just pennies on the dollar of what they’re owed, likely setting off another spate of frustrating court battles.

Some have even received notices that show pending payments in the negative.  

Sarah Goldston, the 90-year-old widow of Ralph Goldston – who was one of the first black players on the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952 before Alzheimer’s set in during his retirement – learned this month that their family had been awarded $160,000 from the settlement. But that preliminary award dwindled to negative $737 after deductions and “holdbacks,” including thousands the court has kept in case the family owes money for Ralph’s medical bills.

“I thought they made a mistake,” Ralph’s daughter, Ursula Goldston, said after seeing the family might receive nothing because of the pending liens, which email correspondences show might have been withheld in error. "I just cannot believe these people did that.”

USA TODAY reviewed documents or interviewed families in a dozen cases of former players whose settlement projections have been similarly reduced. Money that the former players or their family members had counted on will instead, for now, remain in the NFL’s settlement fund or will be redirected to insurance companies, lawyers, credit card companies or others who have placed a lien on the awards in an effort to secure a piece of the payout.

The payout determinations are not final. Court officials and lawyers are sorting through the lienholders’ claims, while players can also appeal their deductions for an additional cost of $1,000. Out of 20,000 players involved in the suit, less than 700 have been approved for payment so far.

Some of the former players, as well as outside observers, blame in part lawyers who have filed liens seeking a large percentage of the awards even though they did minimal work on the case or recruited players with false promises after the settlement was reached.

USA TODAY reviewed letters in which former attorneys, who were fired before the case settled, demanded as much as 25 percent of a player’s award for as little as 15 months of work. The firms indicated in the letters that their work product amounted to “considerable time and effort.” They say they deserve fair compensation for helping qualify players to receive a settlement and that the lien is largely a fight with the new lawyer over fees.

John C. Coffee Jr., a professor at Columbia Law School, reviewed a sample of the settlement payout notices obtained by USA TODAY. He said if attorneys who did little work are demanding large chunks of a player’s award, that amounts to “unjust enrichment.”

“That’s where you should be outraged,” he said.

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