Washington -- NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw says that some retired players' accounts of being rejected for disability benefits are rife with inaccuracies and that the union will begin a new effort today to defend itself.
The union will announce a new Web page today linked to its home site, nflpa.org, titled "The NFLPA Truth Squad: Facts vs. Fiction," according to a document obtained by The Sun.
"What we've decided to do is deal with all these blogs and inaccuracies that are out there," Upshaw said. "We will not discuss anyone's personal issues unless they bring it up first."
Upshaw and his advisers say some former players exaggerated claims, omitted facts and engaged in "character assassination" in statements to Congress or the media.
He cited Brian DeMarco, 35, as an example. Upshaw said the former Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals offensive lineman, who says he has rods and screws in his back and can barely walk, appeared at an emotional news conference here in June but didn't tell the media that he never completed his benefits applications.
"Once he decided to go out there, I had to expose him," Upshaw said.
DeMarco said yesterday that he did complete disability applications - the union asserts it sent him five by registered mail - and doesn't know what happened to them.
"Is [Upshaw] saying I'm too stupid to fill out an application and put a stamp on it?" DeMarco said. "I don't know what to say, because it hurts too bad and you want to believe they are there to help you."
DeMarco and other retired players said the union's campaign, to be announced today in a news release, appeared insensitive.
Said Brent Boyd, 50, a former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who recently told a Senate committee he has lingering problems from a series of concussions in his playing days: "They're trying to discredit us just for their own greed and their own egos after the hell we've been through."
Upshaw said he didn't choose to respond to specific retired players' allegations until some began using words like "corrupt" and "fraudulent" to describe a disability system he has worked to improve.
On Sept. 18, Boyd told the Senate Commerce Committee: "The current process is so corrupted, so rigged against disabled players, and is done in medieval secrecy."
Upshaw said: "There are probably more inaccuracies out there than accuracies. There are literally thousands [of former players] we've helped, and it's been a good experience for them."
The Web site begins: "This page is dedicated to the truth. The NFLPA will do its best to correct serious misstatements of fact - from whatever source - including misleading omissions of fact about the work we do on behalf of all players - past, present and future." The Web site also will provide links to pertinent documents such as court cases or medical reports.
The union faces a delicate balancing act, said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
"There are sensitivities around every corner on this. When it devolves to finger-pointing - one ballplayer saying something and the union getting involved - it's just going to be a mess," Carter said. "I don't know if there are going to be any winners in this at all."
The retirees' complaints became news when such prominent figures as former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and the widow of former Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas joined less-well-known players this year in accusing union and league officials of abandoning needy players. The retirement plan's fund contains $1.1 billion and covers retirement, disability and death benefits. Retired players can receive $110,000 a year if they are declared "totally and permanently disabled" within 15 years of leaving football. There are also various levels of partial disability.
Defending the system
Upshaw has defended the integrity of the system but has proposed measures to speed it up so players don't have to wait months or longer for aid. Asked if he felt sorry for struggling retired players, the Hall of Fame offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders replied: "Of course, I do. I hope you don't take it as me appearing callous."
Upshaw's ambivalence in responding to allegations was understandable, according to Lanny Davis, an attorney at the Washington law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe retained by NFLPA to advise it on legal issues and media coverage related to retired players' benefits and other matters. Davis, a special counsel to President Clinton between 1996 and 1998, said Upshaw "was concerned about criticizing players who were in physical and mental pain even when they were making inaccurate attacks."
Upshaw has not always been reticent. He was quoted four months ago in the Philadelphia Daily News saying, "A guy like [Hall of Fame guard Joe] DeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."
Upshaw has sometimes seemed exasperated talking about the disability issue, even as he says he still has the support of most of the 2,700 to 3,000 retired players who are union members.
Among the other retired players whose accounts the union contests:
Boyd. He told the Senate panel he suffered the first of a series of concussions in a 1980 preseason game and began to suffer headaches and, later, dizziness and fatigue. A board composed of three union and three management representatives awarded him a lesser form of disability benefits than he sought - initially about $1,500 a month - and sent him to a neurologist to determine if he qualified for more aid.
Boyd told the committee the neurologist was "handpicked" by the union's law firm and he received only a cursory examination.
The union says Boyd's initial disability application in 1997 didn't mention any football-related head injuries even though he had been retired for 11 years - an omission Boyd says occurred because his mental impairments hadn't yet been diagnosed. The NFLPA said the exam lasted well over an hour.
Dwight Harrison. The former defensive back for the Baltimore Colts and Buffalo Bills, among other teams, appeared at a media event this month and said he lived in a trailer in Beaumont, Texas. Harrison, 58, sought benefits in 1993, claiming football-related disabilities, according to the union. To receive the category of "total and permanent" benefits a player must be unable to work.
But the union said Harrison, who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit after being denied full benefits, "was conducting various businesses" and "had a rodeo on his property."
DeMarco. Married with two young children, he described being homeless three times in recent years.
Upshaw said the union has supplied DeMarco with rent money and other aid from a fund for athletes with special needs.
DeMarco said yesterday that the "the players assistance trust was a fantastic Band-Aid at the time" but didn't address long-term problems.
"It's not about whether they gave me the $9,000 or some change. This is about me being disabled from doing my job. That's what this is about," DeMarco said.