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Does The NFL's Proposed Settlement Change The Game?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. From Chicago, Arsalan Iftikhar. He's senior editor of the Islamic Monthly and founder of Here in Washington, D.C., Paul Butler. He's a law professor at George University. Also here in D.C., sports editor at the magazine The Nation, Dave Zirin. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, before we get right into it, I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't thank colleagues, friends, fans of the show who reached out with condolences for the loss of my wife on my FB fan page, my secret Twitter and other forms of social media. I am forever grateful. Also, bereft and devastated, but as my wife herself would...

MARTIN: ...You know you have our condolences, Jimi.

DAVE ZIRIN: Love you Jimi.

PAUL BUTLER: Yeah, definitely.

IZRAEL: Thank you, but you know what? All this said, as my wife herself almost certainly would say, you know, get a hold of this. Ain't nobody got time for that. Let's make some radio. Welcome, welcome, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ZIRIN: Yep, yep.

BUTLER: What's up man?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: We love you, Teshima.

IZRAEL: Hey, hey. All right, so let's get into this. It looks like the NFL is going to pay out millions - mega, mega millions. They agreed to a settlement with former players over brain injuries. D. Z., Dave Zirin, you're our sports guy. Who really wins here? Is this a victory for the players?

ZIRIN: Oh, no. This is not a victory for the players. This is the victory for the National Football League. They are the Teflon Dons in this whole situation. They are gangster in this. They basically cut a check for $765 million and in return, they don't have to admit that they did anything wrong. There is no admission of liability here whatsoever, and let's talk about that 765 million. Half of it is paid in the first 3 years. The second half, over the next 17 years. It works out to roughly $700,000 per team or the annual salary of a decent placekicker.

MARTIN: Well, couldn't you argue, though, that if you are suffering the consequences of injuries that you want that money now, particularly since - if some of the people who might be suffering the worst injuries or the worst consequences are years away from their playing careers or in declining health, that that money is much more valuable to them now than it would be in the future?

ZIRIN: Definitely. That's definitely true. But early - early analysis of this said that the NFL - to make this go away - would have to put in between $2 and $10 billion. So in terms of the amount of money that they're having to put forward, I mean, it truly is a pittance.

IZRAEL: Well, you know, what, Dave, you know, some critics say players knew the risk going in, but, you know, I'm not - of course I'm not sure they knew all - you know, all the risks and to what extent. Here's former Philadelphia Eagle Kevin Turner. He's 44 and has Lou Gehrig's disease, which might be because of his years of hard hits. Here's what he had to say about the settlement.


KEVIN TURNER: It will give them the peace of mind that I have the best quality of life that I'm able to have.


ZIRIN: Jimi, you got to give me a second 'cause I've interviewed Kevin Turner a great deal over the last couple years. I didn't know he was doing that badly. It just...

IZRAEL: ...Wow.

ZIRIN: ...It's heartbreaking.

MARTIN: Is there evidence, though, that his - that this condition is related to the hits?

ZIRIN: That's part of the problem with the settlement. That's why I feel such regret that there's not going to be a trial because there's going to be no discovery process where we would've actually have known what the NFL's neurologists did or did not know over the last 20 years, which, to me, is a public health issue like lead paint or asbestos. The public has the right to know.

IFTIKHAR: You know...

IZRAEL: A-Train, Arsalan Iftikhar...

IFTIKHAR: ...Yeah...

IZRAEL: ...You're the man.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, putting my lawyer hat on for a second.

IZRAEL: Please.

IFTIKHAR: You know, I agree with everything that David said, but, you know, in terms of a class-action lawsuit, you know, that was initially filed for $1.9 billion, you know, we talk about the discovery process and most analysts suggest that the discovery process would not be able to be complete until maybe the year 2018. And Kevin Turner, you know, said in many of his interviews that he was afraid that he wasn't going to be around, you know, if this case ever came to a settlement. What's important to keep in mind is the fact that, you know, it would have been an incredibly difficult case to prove in court, you know, that there was, you know, a direct causation between, you know, asking a former linebacker, you know, so when did you get your first concussion in high school, asking a quarterback how many times did you have your bell rung in college. You know, from a legal sort of vantage point, it would've been very difficult to prove and I think that, you know, putting caps at $5 million for Alzheimer's victims, $4 million for those people who have died - for their family families or $3 Million for people who have suffered dementia is really not nothing.


MARTIN: What do you think?

BUTLER: Well, I'm concerned that the players just got bamboozled. I agree with Dave. The NFL has 20 years to pay this money. That's chump change for them. They make billions of dollars every year. The people on this case who are really getting paid are the lawyers. This is a class-action lawsuit with thousands of football players and it's a consistent problem in cases like this that the members of the class each get a little bit and the lawyers get a lot.

ZIRIN: And I've got to say, one point on this that is critical, the question, if it had gone to court, would've been less how many concussions did you get in the NFL and more did the NFL have knowledge that concussions lead to Lou Gehrig's disease, lead to dementia, and would players have made, maybe, different choices either with their lives or whether or not they went back into the games and did the NFL withhold that knowledge. It's tragic that we will never know the answer to this.

MARTIN: Yeah, but it's also the case that these are grown men and women - because we're also talking about spouses who have been very active in advancing the interests of their husbands and, in some cases, you know, fathers and brothers when they've seen the effects of - what they believe to be the effects of years of play. These are adults. They have representation. I mean, the head of the NFL players union is a seasoned litigator. So it's not like they don't have access to the opportunity to make different choices if they had chosen to do so. This is a very large class of people. And I guess I kind of feel like, is it a little infantilizing for - I mean, you're entitled to your opinion, Dave, but is it a little infantilizing for you to, then, sort of say to them that they should not have made a decision that they believed to be in their best interests through their council?

ZIRIN: Well, I would just say, less infantilizing and more - I always saw this case as bigger than the 4,500 people who are bringing the lawsuit. I see this as a case that should've been for the millions of families out there who are trying to make the choice for themselves - should I let my 9-year-old play peewee football. And this would've been a chance to open up a lot of scientific data that now the public will never see that I think, when we talk about issues of informed consent, we have the right to know.

MARTIN: Well, OK, but then maybe, maybe not, I mean, because I'm looking at the whole question of tobacco and the effect of tobacco, the physical effects of tobacco. There have been - it's a highly litigious industry - many, many, lawsuits directed at people who advanced the argument and eventually the truth does come out. So, you know, we'll see. I mean, we'll see. So you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, sports editor Dave Zirin, law professor Paul Butler. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Well, let's have a look at things going on overseas. It looks like the U.S. is getting ready for a military strike against Syria and the Obama administration might be going in alone. Right, Michel?

MARTIN: Yes, 'cause, you know, the administration says the action is now necessary because Syria's government used chemical weapons against its own people last week, killing perhaps, possibly a thousand people. Now this is an allegation that had been made before, but the level of casualties was believed to have been less. Britain's House of Commons voted not to intervene. The United Nations is not supportive of - either. This is what United Nations spokesman Farhan Haq said yesterday.


FARHAN HAQ: The secretary-general has made it very clear, repeatedly, that all parties need to give peace a chance, they need to give diplomacy a chance. He has urged nations to avoid further militarization of Syria and he continues to do so. And he has urged the Security Council to come together and take united action on Syria and he continues to do so.


MARTIN: So what do you think, Jimi?


MARTIN: I mean, as a citizen. I recognize you're not an expert in this area, but, I mean, as a citizen I'm wondering if you have an opinion about this.

IZRAEL: Wow. Well, you know what, Michel? I'm glad I don't have to make a decision. And you know how I'm always riffing on Mr. President about his - you know, him vacillating between, you know, John Shaft and Sidney Poitier. But this is truly, actually his Truck Turner moment, actually, quiet is kept, word to Isaac Hayes. He has to make the right decision that could change other people's lives with all the facts that he has on the table, and he's got to do it right now. He's got to do something. And I'm just glad it's not me. A-train, Arsalan, should we get involved?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, that's the million dollar question, and I'm sort of torn on this, you know, as somebody who's studied the region for a long time. Now those people who are supporting of limited airstrikes, you know, sort of fall under the Samantha Power camp of the people who follow the doctrine of R2P, which is known as responsibility to protect. It's a 1995 U.N. initiative, which basically says that sovereignty is not a right, it's a responsibility, and that the international community has a responsibility to protect citizens who are being attacked by their own government. So what I would see this as is more analogous to the 1999 Kosovo bombardment - the 78 day Operation Allied Force. And what's important to keep in mind here is the fact that this is probably going to be a NATO coalition. A U.N. Security Council resolution is going to be virtually impossible because of the fact that Russia and China both support Syria. And, you know, what's interesting to me is that this is going to be more of a saving face thing for the United States. Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast recently reported that Syrian rebels were asking the administration for gas masks because they feared a chemical strike, over a year ago, and the administration didn't do anything. And so...

MARTIN: ...So is it yes or no?

IFTIKHAR: I don't know. I see...

MARTIN: ...For you. For you. I'm asking you, as a citizen, yes or no?

IFTIKHAR: I don't know, Michel. To be honest, I see benefits on both ends. To me, what's more important is what's the endgame, you know. If you do limited airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad, you know, ultimately, does that - will that preclude him from using chemical weapons again? Is that going to, you know, turn the - we don't know. We're too late in the game here.

MARTIN: Dave. Dave definitely has an opinion, yes or no?

ZIRIN: Just no, no and no. Look...

MARTIN: Dave's head is about to spin off his neck.

IZRAEL: He went in on it...

ZIRIN: ...If there's one thing that's always calmed things down in the Middle East, it's U.S. cruise missiles.


ZIRIN: Look, it comes down to this for me. There is no appetite for war in the United States. There is no clear sense of what even occurred. The phrase, not a slam dunk, has been used by intelligence officials. The idea of rushing to war is both frightening and disturbing as a citizen in this country. And I have to say, the week - how can we have such cognitive dissonance that the week we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who spoke about the spiritual death of a country that engages too quickly in militarism, that we can then pivot so sharply and say cruise missiles are the answer.


BUTLER: Well, we're not just citizens of...

IZRAEL: ...Go ahead, Paul.

BUTLER: ...the United States, we're citizens of the world and we cannot sit back and let people get gassed and do nothing. So there are not any really good options. There are just different bad ones. So, you know, I agree...

IZRAEL: ...Amen, brother.

BUTLER: ...We shouldn't get involved in a protracted expensive war, when we got problems of our own, kids dying in the streets in Chicago. So I think Obama has the right compromise - no ground troops but targeted airstrikes. Again, not a great option but the best of a bunch of bad ones.

MARTIN: I just feel that this is one of these situations where - and I recognize that all of you are not experts in this field - but that as citizens, I mean, these actions are done in our name and so we have a responsibility to think about it. I feel, we have responsibility to think about how we feel about these things. And just to say, well - to throw up our hands and say, well, I don't know. It's true, we delegate these decisions to these individuals by intention, but that's why I think we should talk about it. And we should think about it as citizens, Paul said, not just of this country but of the world. So I know it's an odd transition here, but I did want to save up a few minutes to talk about something that everybody's talking about anyway, which is, Jimi?

IZRAEL: Now look, Michel, I've been talking about this for a number of years. I've been trying to get you guys to pay attention to this twerking movement. And all of a sudden...

MARTIN: ...That's because you refuse to demonstrated it for us.

IFTIKHAR: Oh, YouTube.

IZRAEL: ...Well, and...


MARTIN: The visual would've helped us understand why we need to talk about it.


MARTIN: Anyway.

IZRAEL: Well, you guys know there was, like, a hubbub over the VMA event because, you know, Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. You know, Miley Cyrus was kind of going at the whole twerking thing up there on stage.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we all saw it. I mean, if you haven't seen it, you will, you know, in a matter of, you know, minutes. It's probably embedded in your brain right now. So just very quickly, I just want to hear where are you all on this? Where are you on this? Everybody wants to talk about - Paul?

BUTLER: Miley was off the chain. Her performance was outrageous, transgressive and mad entertaining. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. So look...



BUTLER: ...Black women, black gay men have been twerking for years and nobody complains. When a young white woman does it, everybody goes off. I don't get the math?




ZIRIN: I felt like I was watching Al Jolson in blackface singing "Mammy." That's what I thought I was watching. There was a sense of somebody, of white Disney - let's face it - virginal stock on stage using the presence of African-American women, specifically strippers from New Orleans, to express her own authenticity that she was now post-Disney. I do not believe in slut shaming. I think people who take it that way to criticize Miley Cyrus should be smacked down. But I think the using of black bodies to express her new career was profoundly disturbing.

BUTLER: Then why aren't you mad at Justin Timberlake? Why aren't you mad at the way that Macklemore and Lewis...

MARTIN: ...Justin Timberlake?

BUTLER: ...Appropriated hip-hop?

MARTIN: He's not talking about appropriating hip-hop. He's talking about using this to validate one aspect of black culture, and basically using black as a proxy for trash. That's what he's talking about.

BUTLER: Well...

MARTIN: All right. Wait. Wait. Let's hear from other people. Arsalan, you want to say something? I know, Jimi, you want to say something, too.


IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I wish I had never seen it. You know, for me it was - she was trying too hard. You could clearly tell she was trying to, you know, completely shut off her, you know, Hannah Montana, you know, Disney image. And, you know, I think she was successful in doing that. I think, ultimately, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think twerking goes back, literally, hundreds of years. You can see it in footage of ancient, or not so ancient, fertility rituals. Also, it goes back to the Jamaican dancehall. So having said all that, what I don't want to see is my daughter on YouTube with a twerk video, or your daughter on YouTube with a twerk video. And it's sad for me, as much as I like watching women snap their behinds back and forth, of which Miley has no - she's got nothing behind to twerk with. But that's a different conversation.

MARTIN: That is a different conversation.

IZRAEL: But having said that, we got to nip that movement in the butt because we have young - it's really just a soft porn movement where we have young, underage, young ladies posting videos of themselves in not enough clothes, snapping their behinds back and forth, not understanding what they're really getting into and what they're really saying about themselves and how they feel. So I was saddened to see Miley cosign it, also saddened to see that she couldn't - didn't have enough behind to twerk with.

MARTIN: Oh, gosh.

IZRAEL: But, oh well.

MARTIN: Enough with that. Paul, you wanted to say something else that I can disagree with you?

BUTLER: Yeah. I mean, I think...


IFTIKHAR: Preemptive.

BUTLER: I think it's OK for women to be sexual and to be upfront and aggressive about being sexual.

MARTIN: Well, why didn't she go up there by herself as opposed to surrounding herself with people who have nothing to do with her experience and she can use them for props?

BUTLER: Because she's on freaking MTV. It's the whole thing, a spectacle. It's about entertainment. It's about a multicultural moment. And it's also - let's be honest - it's about a ratchet moment. And a lot of middle-class, African-Americans have problems with that.

ZIRIN: Oh, no.

IZRAEL: Oh, man.

MARTIN: Which they are allowed to have.

IZRAEL: Ratchet.


IZRAEL: This is NPR.

MARTIN: All right. Exactly.

IFTIKHAR: That was a first.

MARTIN: With that being said, Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University. He's a former federal prosecutor. I'm not quite sure why that's relevant, to this particular conversation. Jimi Izrael's a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College, with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation and host of SiriusXM Radio's Edge of Sports Radio, with us in D.C. along with Paul Butler. Arsalan Iftikhar is founder of and senior editor for Islamic Monthly. He joined us from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you all so much.


BUTLER: Great to be here.

ZIRIN: Great to be here.


MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.