NFL disability fight goes to Capitol Hill

"Usually their tactics are delay, deny, and hope that I'll put a bullet through my head to end their problems"

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WASHINGTON -- Brent Boyd, a former guard for the Minnesota Vikings, warned that his testimony would, at times, be unclear.

"I do have brain damage and when I'm under stress the damaged part of my brain receives less blood," he told the House Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee yesterday. "This qualifies as stress, testifying before Congress."

Boyd, 50, then turned his focus to the NFL's retirement and disability board, which denied him full benefits five years ago. His message was completely clear.

"Usually their tactics are delay, deny, and hope that I'll put a bullet through my head to end their problems," he said.

The heated conflict among retired players, their union, and the NFL over long-term injury benefits reached a fever pitch on Capitol Hill yesterday, with several former star athletes decrying bureaucratic hurdles that stop them from collecting money to help cover the expenses and limitations of debilitating injuries.

"The NFL is considered to be the most brutal major American professional sports league. Half of all players retire because of injury, 60 percent of players suffer a concussion," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., chairwoman of the subcommittee. "Is the NFL, a multi-billion dollar organization, fairly treating the employees who built it?"

Yes, say league and union officials. In 1982, the NFL's retirement plan had $88 million. It now has $1.1 billion, according to Dennis Curran, the league's senior vice president. Over that time period, players categorized as "totally and permanently disabled" saw an increase in annual payments from about $9,000 to $110,000.

The plan made $20 million in disability payments last year.

"The NFL is proud of its post-career, comprehensive benefits," Curran said.

Yet few players receive disability money: 317 of about 8,000 retired players, said Douglas W. Ell, counsel for the retirement plan.

Retired players can apply for disability payments at any time in their post-career years, but there is a 15-year window to apply for full benefits.

Mr. Ell said injuries may be harder to connect to a former player's time in the league after that period expires.

"Is that an arbitrary timeline? Perhaps we should revisit that," he said.

Sanchez forcefully repeated his words: "Perhaps you should revisit that."

Harry Carson, a former linebacker for the New York Giants, told the panel that he has been out of the NFL for 19 years, yet he still feels pain in his knees, ankles, hips and back. And he still has post-concussion symptoms.

"I think players should have a lifetime of coverage," said Carson, 53, who recently used his Hall of Fame induction speech to talk about the woes of retirees. "The things you put your body though on a football field never go away. You take them with you to the grave."

Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Steelers, took his injuries with him when he died in 2002, yet his family continued a legal fight for his disability benefits.

In 2005, Webster's estate received a settlement of nearly $1.5 million. His son, Garrett, was at yesterday's hearing.

"There was unanimous medical evidence about whether he was totally and permanently disabled," the family lawyer, Cyril Smith, told lawmakers. "In many ways, Mike Webster's case was a warning sound -- and a loud one -- that the disability system here is broken, badly broken."

Smith suggested that the six-member board responsible for administering the retirement plan could address some problems by significantly shortening the period of time for considering claims. He also said the board should appoint neutral arbitrators to oversee disputes, while deferring to players' physicians on medical questions.

Curran said Congress did not need to intervene in the issue through new legislation.

Also at yesterday's hearing was Brian DeMarco, a former offensive lineman with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cincinnati Bengals who has harshly criticized the NFL Players Association and its executive director, Gene Upshaw. He hobbled to a seat with the help of a crutch and his wife in the middle of the hearing, yet he didn't speak.

Mike Ditka, the famed Chicago Bears coach and Aliquippa native who has become an outspoken advocate for former players, was a witness. During a question-and-answer session, he nearly exploded in frustration.

"I don't understand it. Take care of them. Then go out and make a file," he shouted. "I don't know all these terms. I'm not intelligent [enough] to know all this stuff. I'm just saying I know what's right and I know what's wrong. What's happening now is wrong."


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 202-488-3479.


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