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NFL interference: Nix a special investigator on brain injury claims

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks to reporters on May 23 in Atlanta.

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The National Football League wants a federal judge to approve an independent special investigator to review brain injury claims from former players, fearing many are faking symptoms to get themselves a piece of a landmark settlement agreement.

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This is a problem of the league’s making. Its long-term failure to address brain injuries in the sport created a liability that it’s now trying to circumscribe with cries of fraud. The judge overseeing the settlement must ensure that every legitimate claimant is compensated, even if that means giving some, perhaps many, the benefit of the doubt.

The settlement, reached in 2013, ends thousands of lawsuits from ex-players who claimed the league had evidence of the long-term effects of head injuries even as it let them batter their brains into mush. It’s been estimated that payouts will total as much as $1 billion. So far, the league has paid about $440 million for 432 claims.

The settlement covers those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or other types of dementia. But the list of those injured by the game runs much longer. Every former player had his bell rung at least once, and even minor head injuries can have life-changing effects. The NFL should be thankful it hasn’t been hit with more lawsuits covering a wider variety of brain injuries.

The settlement has drawn about 2,000 claims so far, but the NFL isn’t just handing out checks. There’s a professional claims review process in place, and an astonishing 46 percent of cases have been flagged for a second look because someone suspects something fishy.

Now the league wants another layer of protection with the appointment of a special investigator to ferret out improper claims. But if an investigator approaches the job with an eye toward preventing fraud, a certain number of legitimate claims almost invariably will be sacrificed along the way, undermining the whole process.

The judge should nix the idea of a special investigator. The NFL shouldn’t be allowed to change the rules mid-game.

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