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An Insurance Crisis Is Quietly Growing For Football In America


The NFL has, over the last decade, been rocked by lawsuits over traumatic brain injuries, allegations of player domestic violence off the field and rule changes of their own. But according to an ESPN investigation, the sport is facing a problem that could threaten its very survival - lack of insurance. The NFL no longer has general liability insurance covering head trauma. And only one carrier is willing to cover teams for workman's comp. In short, if there's no insurance, there's no football. Steve Fainaru co-wrote the story with Mark Fainaru-Wada for ESPN's Outside the Lines. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So help us understand right now what the NFL is dealing with when it comes to insurance.

FAINARU: It started with the resolution of the class-action suit against the NFL that was over concussions. You had thousands of former players that were accusing the league of covering up the link between football and neurodegenerative disease. The NFL settled that suit for an estimated $1 billion. And since then, the insurance industry has been taking a look at the litigation that's been proliferating since then. And it's hitting the sport at all levels - from Pop Warner all the way up to the league. And the result has been that many of the companies have just been taking a pass. They've been getting out of the industry. So if the league was sued under its general liability policy on this issue in the future, they're on their own. They ultimately have to pay it.

CORNISH: It's interesting. So, basically, no matter what the NFL says or anyone attempting to debate the science of what's going on, insurers have made a call already, which is, like, they're out.

FAINARU: Yeah, I think this is one of the things that is so striking about this issue - is that it's a market issue. And so for all the issues that the NFL has been doing to try to mitigate this problem, to try to - putting money into the research and changing the rules - that the insurance industry is making its own judgments about where this is going. And I think that what they're seeing is that there's just still a tremendous amount of uncertainty. There's been so much litigation that's proliferated since the NFL settled the class-action suit in 2013 that it really gives the insurance industry pause. The NFL's insurance broker, Alex Fairly, spoke with us. And he said bluntly that if you are football or other contact sports, the insurance industry basically doesn't want you right now.

CORNISH: So your reporting shows that we're already starting to see the impact of this - smaller programs shutting down because of insurance costs. Can you describe one or two stories that stuck out to you?

FAINARU: The problem is especially acute at the lower levels, at the nonrevenue-producing sports. So Pop Warner, for example, was told by its longtime insurer that it would no longer cover the organization for any neurological injury. And they found that there was only one company that was able to provide them that coverage. And the executive director of Pop Warner, Jon Butler, told us there's only, really, two solutions for Pop Warner if they can't get insurance. They either have to declare bankruptcy, or they go out of business.

So that would obviously pose incredible problems for the 250,000 youth players that are involved in Pop Warner. We followed a case in Maricopa County, Ariz., where a junior college district decided to eliminate football for four teams. They found that the cost of insuring 358 football players represented one-third of the entire costs of the 200,000 students that were in the system. And they decided that was just too much. And they had to get out of it.

CORNISH: In the long run, as more and more insurers get out and get out at the level you were talking about - Pop Warner - right? - people's early introduction to playing the sport, could that have a long-term effect on football itself?

FAINARU: I think we'll have to see. But I think it's obvious - if you can't get insurance with all the litigation that's out there, it becomes essentially impossible to field a team. And so for youth sports in particular - and then when you get into the high-school level, there is an enormous amount of complexity around it. But it is sort of a basic thing - that if you can't get insurance, it becomes very difficult to stage the sport.

CORNISH: Steve Fainaru reports for ESPN's Outside the Lines. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

FAINARU: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.