Under fire from injured retirees who say they were denied sufficient benefits, the head of the National Football League Players Association asked Congress this week for greater authority to approve players’ disability claims.
Gene Upshaw, director of the players association, said the union currently is limited under federal workers compensation law in what it can do for the scores of former players who are battered and broken from years of playing the violent sport.
At the same time, Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said league pensions are improving.
“We have made great progress, and we are not finished,” Upshaw told a Senate committee. “Congress can help.”
It is the first time the union has asked Congress for help with the problem, which was the subject of a House hearing earlier this year.
Retired football players have been openly critical of the NFL and the players’ union over the amount of money that older retirees get from a $1.1 billion fund set aside for disability and pensions.
Goodell defended the system, saying the NFL is boosting benefits when many companies around the country are reducing them. But he acknowledged that there have to be ways to improve.
“We recognize this is not a short-term problem,” he said in his testimony.
Several former players testified — sometimes tearfully — about the injuries they now live with. Witnesses included Garrett Webster, son of the late Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers’ center who suffered from mental illness that was widely attributed to head injuries.
“I would give my life to never see another family end up like mine,” Webster said.
Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame coach and player for the Chicago Bears, argued that the older players who built the league should be treated better.
“Don’t make proud men beg,” he said. “Just let them live out their lives with a little bit of respect.”
Former Dallas Cowboys star Daryl Johnston and Bears’ Hall of Famer Gale Sayers also testified.
“We have no voice and we have no bargaining power,” said Johnston, whose career also ended in injury. “The money is there to fix this problem.”
The players’ union is asking Congress to change federal law so it has more power on the retirement board that reviews disability claims. Under current law, the union can only name three retired former players to the board. NFL owners appoint the other three representatives.
“Since the NFLPA has been criticized when applications are denied — even though a majority vote of the six trustees is necessary to make a decision — and since current players are funding the system, it makes sense for the players to be the ones making the disability decisions,” Upshaw said.
The union is also asking Congress to tweak federal workers compensation laws and eliminate some of the layers of bureaucracy that make it harder for claims to be honored.
Injured player Dave Pear, who won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders in 1981, says he is skeptical of the proposal by the players union.
“All they’ve delivered so far are broken promises,” Pear said.
North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat who led the hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said his preference is that Congress not legislate on the issue but stay involved through oversight.
Still, he said, “something’s not working the way it should work.”
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he is prepared to offer legislation, however, if the problem is not resolved soon.
“It seems to me the league is dropping the ball here,” he said.
The hearing comes a little more than a week after Buffalo Bills’ tight end Kevin Everett was seriously injured in the team’s season opener. Everett arrived at the hospital paralyzed from his neck down, and doctors feared he would never walk again.
But Everett is now showing movement in his hands and legs, and doctors say it is possible he will lead a normal life.
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