NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw asked Congress yesterday for assistance in improving a disability benefits system that retired players say repeatedly let them down when they were poor and ailing from old football injuries.
"We have made great progress, and we are not finished. Congress can help," Upshaw said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing attended by such former NFL luminaries as Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, Daryl "Moose" Johnston and Mercury Morris.
Many of the retired players who appeared in the jammed Senate hearing room - either as witnesses or spectators - said it was too soon to tell whether Upshaw would deliver on the new series of reform proposals, some of which require legislative action.
Retired players have long complained that the system unfairly denies assistance, and that it is too slow. Although several lawmakers said they hoped legislation wouldn't be needed, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said he was "prepared to introduce legislation to create an oversight commission to look at the actions of the retirement board."
Some ex-players, such as former Miami Dolphins running back Morris, have grown skeptical of Upshaw and the benefits system jointly run by NFL and union representatives. "Their intent is to prevent the player from getting the benefit," Morris said after the hearing.
Upshaw's proposals are designed to speed up the claims system, eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy. Some of what Upshaw wants would require changes in federal law.
He asked legislators to remove a federal requirement that team owners' representatives be included on a six-member board making disability decisions. Since current players finance the $1.1 billion retirement and disability system, "it makes sense for the players to be the ones making the disability decisions," Upshaw said.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told the committee he would look at the proposal.
"Anything that would improve the system ... we will consider," he said.
Upshaw also called for the elimination of an initial step in the process, in which applicants must appear before an owner's appointee and a union appointee. If one person disagrees, it's a deadlock, and the claim is denied.
"We'll see if what was promised today really takes shape," Johnston, a Fox Sports broadcaster and former Dallas Cowboys fullback, said after Upshaw's testimony.
Johnston told the panel his 11-year career ended prematurely in 1999. He said he suffered a pair of herniated discs but did not qualify for disability benefits.
"The only concern that they had was whether I could maintain another job - any other job - and generate income, with no regard to the injuries that were a direct result of playing the game of football," Johnston said.
Johnston did not meet the plan's standards for a "substantial disablement" that would have qualified him for benefits even though he is still able to hold a job, according to a 25-page NFLPA memorandum released at the hearing.
The memorandum contains disability-case summaries of a number of former players, many of them former stars. It says, for example, that longtime offensive lineman Conrad Dobler was rejected for "total and permanent" disability - under which former players can receive $110,000 per year - because he was deemed able to work despite elbow and knee injuries. It said an application for partial disability was rejected because it was submitted "more than 20 years late."
The union said another former player, Dwight Harrison - a defensive back for the Baltimore Colts, among other teams, in the 1970s - sought full benefits in 1993, alleging football-related disabilities.
Harrison was a spectator at the hearing, saying afterward: "I live in a FEMA trailer and I'm a 10-year NFL veteran."
He said he was provided the trailer because he survived Hurricane Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
The union said Harrison was denied benefits for several reasons, including a determination "that he was conducting various businesses" and "had a rodeo on his property" in Texas.
After the two-hour hearing, a dozen former players discussed plans to raise money for needy fellow NFL alumni by selling vintage jerseys and a CD featuring a song about aging NFL heroes.