The NFL vs. Broken Bodies
Are you ready for some football? Every fall millions of football fans gear up for the highly anticipated NFL season. With their anticipation and support comes a never-ending flow of money and advertisement for the NFL as a corporation. Early this year every football fan sulked as they faced a potential strike of the 2011-2012 season by players. This strike could potentially occur due to NFL players and owners not being able to sign a collective bargaining agreement. The course of negotiations were unknown to fans that were forced to patiently wait while players and owners debated the dollars.
In the background of this struggle sits one small group who while affected by the final terms of the collective bargaining agreement, has no voice in the debate. Who is this group of individuals and do they have no power? The answer is retired NFL players seeking disability aid. For years this group of no more 8,000 men have fought and in most cases lost their battle to receive substantial disability aid. However all such retirees of the NFL are hoping that a new collective bargaining agreement will foster dramatic changes in their health and disability plan.
Every loyal fan, viewer, and supporter of the NFL has a moral obligation to support the cause of these retired players because it was their play and effort that turned the NFL into a multi-billion dollar corporation. Legends like Johnny Unitus, Joe Montana, and Walter Peyton are worshiped like American heroes by millions of fans who have watched football for countless seasons. Once retired though the “Bert Belll/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement plan” is of little help to those retired players needing aid. The current NFL disability system does not meet the specific needs of players, and several changes can be made to make it a fair system.
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But why should we the public take any special interest in this group of individuals while there are plenty of others fighting for some form of fair rights? It is widely known that NFL players have the greatest risk of injury, “Injuries in the NFL occur at a rate eight times higher than any other major pro sport according to the U.S. Department of Labor” (Miller 1).
As fans and viewers who feed into the entertainment of the sport, we must recognize the physical demand and sacrifice players make to play the game at such a high level. The NFL makes profit from team memorabilia and ticket sales, as well as from advertisers for which we as viewers generate the fuel. As fans and supporters we are in a position of power and influence as our money, attendance, and viewing are essential the NFL’s survival in this depressed economy.
Some would be quick to point out that the average NFL player makes over $200,000 dollars a year. Such views would allow them to assume that since the pay is so well that injured players are well off enough to meet their own medical needs. This could not be further from the truth. It is the nature of professional football that most players have short carriers that are usually ended by injury. Because of this crucial fact there are more than a few rare circumstances that many other unions and insurance groups don’t face. This implies that perhaps there is need for special assistance in support of those seeking to gain benefits. A majority of NFL retirees have spent more money on medical expenses than they ever made playing football. Only 4% of retired players receive any money from a system that leaves many players to rely on Social Security or in some cases less that $300 a month in aid.
While the battle at stake is overwhelming for most retirees, they do have a few strong advocates to fight for their cause. John Hogan has been a high stakes insurance lawyer for over 25 years. Recently he has represented a handful of players filing for disability claims against the NFL. Hogan views the NFL as the worst organization when it comes to awarding disability aid; “Not that insurance companies are easy, but insurance companies follow government timelines. They are supposed to rule 45 days after a claim is made. The NFL plan completely ignores it” (Carpenter 1).
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Hogan has successfully represented players in the past who have filed suits against the NFL. His biggest question however was why the NFL Players Association did not give any legal advice or assistance to players seeking benefits. Other players also feel as if their former Union has abounded them in their most dire time of need. Hogan is currently representing Hart Lee Dykes, a former New England Patriot, who despite being declared disabled by 3 doctors, has been denied four times by the disability board. Dykes frustration with his decade battle has left him questioning the NFL and the NFLPA, “the players association is supposed to be for the players, the players are suffering” (Carpenter 1).
Of course Dykes is not the only outspoken player on the issue, “the disability system is so busted and so wrong, it doesn’t need a tweak here or there; you’ve got to blow it up,” said Bruce Laird, a former Baltimore Colts safety who started an organization called Fourth and Goal.
Are the NFl and NFLPA really that out of touch with their responsibilities as employer and union? Critics think not, even NFLPA director Gene Upshaw has gone on record giving the plan praise, “”the NFLPA is proud of the generosity of these plans, an employee of a corporation like IBM or General Motors does not get and does not expect to get disability benefits if he or she becomes unable to work decades after leaving the job” (Miller 1).
Defenders of the “Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement plan” argue that it is the most extensive in all major sports, with its highest plan awarding players a minimum of $110,000. However when only 224 of 8,000 eligible players receive any aid, it is clear that there are some unique needs that playing in the NFL create. Retired players need a plan that should address those needs.
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For instance, take the story of Victor Washington, a former Pro Bowl player who after 7 years was forced to retire from the game. A number of injuries to the knee, shoulder, back, and elbow left him unable to work. Due to his injuries and chronic pain, Victor soon fell into a state of depression. After filing for disability from the NFL it was determined that he was indeed “totally and permanently disabled” as the plan required. But he was denied because the disability board recognized other health factors such as his depression as aiding factors to his disability. But league representatives don’t view his case this way. Douglas Ell, a lawyer with the Groom Law Group, which represents the NFL plan has gone on record making comments such as “He claims football made him crazy, and many players wrongfully blame football for their problems after retirement” (Schultz 1).
Until recently NFL officials have denied any connection between concussions suffered from playing and significant brain trauma after playing. Anne McKee, of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is a leading advocate for recognizing the dangers of concussions in sports. After studying 11 cases of former football players, Dr. McKee discovered the existence of abnormalities which proved to be CTE. CTE is a progressive degenerative disease that attacks brain cells and comes with life altering symptoms. These symptoms include difficulties in short-term memory, attention, concentration, organization, planning, problem solving, judgment, and the ability to juggle more than one task at a time. After studying literally thousands of brains, Dr. McKee has only found this form of CTE in boxers and NFL players.
Unfortunately, CTE can only be diagnosed after death. This is important because doctors now agree that traumatic brain injury is now recognized as a causative factor in hormonal deficiencies. These deficiencies include conditions like depression, anxiety, and mood swings. Former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters suffered from sever depression for years before committing suicide in 2007. His autopsy showed that Waters suffered from CTE, which we have learned is very credible link to depression. With all of the available research and current cases held by players with legitimate disability claims, it is unclear why more players don’t receive aid.
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One thing the NFL cannot site as a reason to deny claims, is lack of profit or declining income since the start of the recent depression. Bringing in nearly $8 billion dollars a year, makes the NFL the highest grossing professional sport. The NFL and its 32 teams have continued to prosper during the current economic depression, 19 teams are worth at least $1 billion, and only two teams have operating loses. The total amount of disability paid last year by the NFL was $14.5 million, only $8 million came from the league, the rest came form the players pensions.
What is it that allows the NFL to get by so cheap? On top of requiring “total and permanent” disability in order to receive aid, some feel that the NFL is breaking federal law. John Hogan, a renowned insurance lawyer, believes that the current NFL disability system falls short of meeting the requirements set by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
More specifically, he claimed “they don’t explain the standards are for disability, are too ambiguous about telling people where their claims fell short, and they typically ignore all evidence from players’ own doctors and send them to their own physicians” (Miller 2).
I suggest that several key changes need to be made to the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement plan. These changes should serve as positive steps towards making qualifying for disability easier for retired players. The first change that needs to occur is a change in the way the Bell/Rozell plan defines disabled. As previously noted the plan requires players to be “totally disabled to the extent that he is substantially unable to engage in any occupation” (Plan Sec. 5).
It does not however give specific rules and guidance as to the type of work players can engage in. This requirement is too vague, and does not consider vocational circumstances players face like job availability. Nor does it specify weather those denied are capable of full-time or part-time work.
Another key change would be to revise the clause that requires all disabling symptoms to be the result of football. Instead players should be able to receive aid if injuries from playing are the “major contributing factor” to their disability. This should eliminate the denial of claims where the player has other medical issues, such as arthritis, obesity, or emotional problems like depression. Next, the plan should require evidence of substantial improvement before benefits can be cancelled. In some cases, players are taken off aid after one examination from a physician who denies the disability.
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Currently the Bell/Rozell plan has a fifteen-year limit for players attempting to claim football degenerative benefits. Because some injuries and ailments take longer to render the individual disabled, it is only reasonable to allow players to receive these benefits until they reach the full retirement age of fifty-five. Maybe the most important change that needs to happen is that the Disability Initial Claims Committee should be required to justify the denial of claims. ERISA requires that the initial denial of claims be communicated to the player, with the specific reasons why his claim was denied. As previously noted, the DICC and Retirement Board often leave players with many questions that go unanswered. This is frustrating especially to those players who go through the trouble of preparing well-documented claims that include all relevant health information.
The NFL and the NFL players union constantly ignore the voice of those retired players. Although the NFL has come under some public scrutiny, there is no way to truly hold them responsible. In a year when a new collective bargaining agreement is upon us, it is time to make changes to a policy that does not meet the needs of employees. Especially while the NFL is America’s top grossing and most popular, it should be held to standards that don’t dehumanize those broken bodies seeking disability aid.