Voices Heard, Sides Taken

Brian DeMarco, right, who suffers from a severe back injury, is comforted by another ex-player, Mike Mosley, during a news conference before hearings.
Brian DeMarco, right, who suffers from a severe back injury, is comforted by another ex-player, Mike Mosley, during a news conference before hearings. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

By the time the members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law moved to their second round of questioning in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building yesterday, the lawyers sent by the NFL and the players' union looked ragged.

For almost an hour, lawmakers asked questions about the league's disability plan, listening to former players and a trial lawyer who leveled allegations of a rigged claims system, lengthy waits for news on benefit applications and repeated trips to doctors who seemed determined to reject their applications.

Then Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) a member of the Judiciary Committee but not the subcommittee itself, asked Douglas Ell, counsel for the NFLPA and the disability plan, how many players actually receive disability payments.

"317," Ell replied.

Out of how many, she asked.

Ell said there are roughly 8,000 retired players.

"In one of the most dangerous sports in the history of mankind, only 300 players are receiving disability payments?" Waters said, her voice rising.

Such is how it went for Ell and NFL senior vice president Dennis Curran. Waters wondered how the plan could spend just $20 million out of a $1.1 billion fund for disability and pensions. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) repeatedly interrupted Ell's and Curran's answers before telling the men they should not rely on a board of three owner-representatives and three NFLPA-chosen representatives to make final disability decisions. He said they should instead choose professionals with no ties to either the league or the union.

The issue of retired pro football players and disabilities has been percolating for more than a year after many ex-players were angered by a statement by NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw, who told the Charlotte Observer that he did not represent retired players. Although retired players do not choose the union's leader, the words rankled them.

Soon, stories came out describing players who had been denied benefits despite serious football injuries that left them unable to work, and with the complaints came old allegations that the union under Upshaw has become a pawn for the league.

Former Minnesota Vikings guard Brent Boyd, suffering from the lingering effects of concussions suffered while playing football, testified yesterday that he had been told by NFLPA official Miki Yaras-Davis that his doctors' reports and brain scans would not be considered because "the owners would not open that can of worms" by approving disability for a brain injury.

Before he began speaking, Boyd asked the subcommittee to be patient as he delivered his comments. "I do have brain damage; when under stress my brain gets less blood," he said, then added that he considered testifying before Congress to be a stressful activity.

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