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.
Boyd complained that the plan required him to fly across the country to see a doctor in Baltimore, who Boyd said did not examine his brain and then rejected him for disability. "If this is not fraud and corruption, we need to remove fraud and corruption from the dictionary," he said.
In the face of the players' often emotional testimony, Ell and Curran stuck to defending the plan. They were testifying because Upshaw had planned to be out of the country this week and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who attended a rookie symposium in Florida on Monday, chose not to come. This left Ell and Curran to take the subcommittee's questions.
Later, Ell said much of the public impressions of the plan are the result of a lack of understanding of the policies. "You have very skilled trial lawyers misrepresenting the facts," he said. He added, for instance, that former Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Brian DeMarco, who attended the hearing despite a severe back injury, has not applied for disability despite the player's pleas for help.
Of the legislators gathered in Room 2141, Waters has perhaps the most interest in the subject of the disability plan. Her husband, Sidney Williams, is a former NFL player and she said she watched one of Williams's friends, former Redskin Jim Shorter, waste away several years ago. She said she called the NFLPA several times for help but was treated rudely. As his disability application was being considered she stormed into the retirement board's meeting in Santa Cruz, Calif., to plead his case. But he was turned down because he had taken early retirement, making him ineligible for the disability.
"I think the process is rigged and made to be confusing," Waters said after the hearing. She said she is looking into whether the NFL's antitrust exemption could be modified to let Congress control the disability plan.
As the room nearly cleared, Waters was approached by former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who is one of the union-appointed board members who makes decisions on disability claims. He told her the NFLPA was trying to create programs to help retirees. As he spoke, Bernie Parrish, the unofficial leader of the retired players seeking assistance, stepped in and alleged that the programs were doing little more than creating more money for Ell.
The 46-year-old Duerson and the 71-year-old Parrish began shouting at each other and were soon separated. As they were tugged into the hallway, Duerson wagged his finger at Parrish and said "you were probably one of those guys who never showed up for the [union] meetings."
Parrish, an NFLPA executive in the 1960s, was pulled away before he could respond.