How the NFL avoids paying disabled players — with the union’s help

Pressured by Congress, the league and its union promised reforms years ago. But a Washington Post investigation shows a system still stacked against players left broken by football.

Kelvin Moore, a former safety for the Cincinnati Bengals, is pictured at his home in Inglewood, Calif., on Sept. 7, 2022. (Alisha Jucevic for The Washington Post)
34 min

When retired offensive tackle Darryl Ashmore applied for payments from the NFL disability plan in 2015, he made one request: to see doctors close to his South Florida home.

Hobbled by arthritis and herniated disks, Ashmore found air travel excruciating, his lawyer told plan employees. Instead, the NFL plan scheduled Ashmore to meet doctors in Atlanta. After his lawyer complained, the NFL plan canceled Ashmore’s appointments altogether. Then it denied his claim, falsely accusing him of failing to attend scheduled medical exams.

A federal judge later ordered the NFL plan to pay Ashmore, ruling its explanation for denying his claim “defies all reason and common sense.”

In 2017, the NFL plan cut off payments to Tyrone Keys, a retired defensive end, arguing that disabling arthritis in his back, shoulder and knees had been caused not by football but by a minor car accident. A federal judge later ruled the NFL plan “cherry-picked” evidence to avoid paying Keys, and the plan settled the case.

And last May, during a trial in federal court in Dallas, NFL plan lawyers and board members argued that Michael Cloud, a retired running back suffering from cognitive problems linked to concussions, did not qualify for the plan’s most generous payment.

The judge disagreed, ruling the NFL plan violated federal law when it denied Cloud’s claim. Then she went further, arguing the plan’s treatment of Cloud was part of “a larger strategy engineered to ensure that former NFL players suffering from the devastating effects of severe head trauma are not awarded” full disability payments. The NFL plan has appealed the decision.

The 2022 NFL season will be remembered, in part, for two shocking scenes that renewed focus on the damage America’s most popular sport inflicts on its players. One was the sight of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa writhing on the field after suffering a concussion, bringing a Thursday night game to a halt. The other was Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsing with cardiac arrest, ending a Monday night game and briefly bringing the sport to a standstill.

Both events brought swift public responses from the NFL and the NFL Players Association, professing their concern for the health and safety of the league’s players.

But beyond the glare of national television, debilitated former NFL players continue to encounter a benefit plan, jointly managed by the league and union, that fights aggressively to deny claims and repeatedly shirks legal obligations to fairly review cases, a Washington Post investigation found.

Over the past six months, The Post reviewed thousands of pages of medical records, denial letters and other plan documents produced in lawsuits since 2008, the year after former players went to Congress to complain of onerous red tape, biased doctors and a rigged claims process. League and union officials disputed those allegations but promised reforms.

In the 15 years since, though, eight players have successfully sued the league’s plan, triggering tense and protracted legal fights that have revealed repeated instances in which the NFL’s plan seized on technicalities, ignored medical evidence and flouted federal judges to justify denying claims.

The NFL declined to make any official available for an interview. In a statement, the league dismissed the plan’s losses in court as a small fraction of the thousands of cases it has handled. And even in cases in which federal judges ruled the plan wrongly denied a claim, the NFL asserted, the judges were wrong.

“There have been roughly 10,000 claims considered since 2008,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote. “Even if those less than a dozen cases were improperly decided — and they were not — the less than one dozen cases hardly amount to a pattern.”

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith also declined an interview request. In a statement, the union highlighted how it has fought to expand retiree benefits in negotiations with the NFL.

“There will be an estimated $3 billion, specifically in disability benefits alone, paid out to former players under the current deal,” the NFLPA said. “The record and the numbers reflect the largest increases to former player benefits in NFL history directly resulting from the union’s negotiations with management.”

The NFL and the union both emphasized the sum the plan pays out to disabled retirees: more than $320 million last year, a substantial increase from the $20 million the plan told Congress it was paying out in 2007.

The NFL’s plan is unique, making it difficult to compare its record in the courts with peers. A typical disability insurer manages plans for many companies, covering millions more customers than the NFL plan. But playing in the NFL is also far more likely to leave players with potentially disabling injuries than perhaps any other job in America, increasing the likelihood of lawsuits.

Several experienced disability attorneys who have battled the NFL’s plan in court said in interviews that the league’s plan stands apart in how vociferously it fights claims. And they expressed outrage that the NFL maintains every judge who has ruled against the plan was mistaken.

“When a federal judge tells you multiple times you’ve broken the law, your response should be to change your ways and follow the law. Attacking the courts instead shows just how little the plan has learned … and how lightly they take their duties to NFL retirees,” said Cy Smith, partner at Zuckerman Spaeder firm in Baltimore, who has represented several former players in lawsuits against the NFL plan, most notably former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, whose estate won the first judgment ever against the plan, in 2005.

The most recent judgment, in the Cloud case, came after an unprecedented trial in which a judge, for the first time, forced NFL plan board members to testify about how they review disability claims.

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As she delivered her ruling last May, U.S. District Judge Karen Gren Scholer sharply criticized what she called “a rubber stamp” review process, which she concluded was heavily influenced by Groom Law Group, the D.C. firm that has represented the plan for decades.

“Based on the mountain of evidence set forth in this trial, it is clear to me that the [NFL disability] plan is broke, and it’s time to fix it,” Judge Scholer said.

Federal law requires disability plans to carefully review each case, and Groom lawyers have claimed to the Labor Department that NFL plan board members often review “voluminous records” before deciding claims, “hundreds or thousands of pages.”

But testimony and records from the Cloud case showed a system on cruise control. Board member Robert Smith, a retired Minnesota Vikings running back, testified the board didn’t review any documents in the Cloud case, delegating that work to advisers and lawyers who recommended denying the claim.

The board decided to deny Cloud’s claim, according to an email by a plan employee, during a 10-minute meeting in which it also decided more than 100 other cases, devoting an average of five seconds to each one.

Smith, now a broadcast analyst for Fox Sports, declined to comment. The only document relating to Cloud’s claim that Smith recalled reading, he testified, was a one-page summary prepared by a paralegal at Groom. In her ruling, the judge identified omissions in that summary that weakened Cloud’s claim.

“It has become clear,” the judge wrote, “the [NFL plan] Board misplaced its trust in advisers, including advisers at Groom.”

Groom attorneys who represented the plan in the Cloud case did not reply to repeated requests for comment, nor did the plan’s longtime lead counsel, Douglas Ell.

For years, former players have accused Groom of aggressively contesting claims — and reaping financial benefits in the process. The firm’s revenue from the NFL plan steadily increased from at least $5.7 million in 2016 to at least $8.5 million in 2020, according to public financial disclosure forms.

In litigating Cloud’s case, Groom charged the plan more than $3.5 million, a sum that could have paid Cloud’s disability benefits for 27 years if the plan had approved his claim, according to argument at trial from Cloud’s attorney, Christian Dennie.

Lawyers who have battled the NFL plan celebrated the Cloud ruling in phone interviews as a landmark victory that could aid former players who sue the plan in the future.

“This was really egregious conduct,” said Mark DeBofsky, a Chicago attorney and expert in federal employee benefits law. “What was uncovered in this case was just eye-popping.”

DeBofsky represented a player who spoke at the 2007 congressional hearings. He was one of several attorneys to express hope in interviews that evidence produced by the Cloud case again would draw the interest of lawmakers in D.C.

“It’s probably time for Congress to get involved again,” DeBofsky said.

A painful process

For many Americans, disability benefits are a safety net for a time of extreme need — an insurance policy, often purchased by an employer, that provides income when illness or injury prevents work and a paycheck.

NFL players are not like many Americans. Their profession offers the chance for wealth but little job security — the average career lasts less than four years, according to the union — and risks physical and cognitive damage that could limit work after football.

In 1993, as an acknowledgment of these risks, the NFL and NFLPA created disability benefits that are perhaps the most generous in America.

Former players can qualify for monthly payments that can range from $60,000 annually to $135,000 or more, according to 2019 plan documents, regardless of whether their disability was caused by football. Players permanently disabled as a direct result of their NFL careers can qualify for the most generous payments, known as “Active Football,” which paid at least $265,000 in 2019. Payments last as long as a player’s disability, potentially for the rest of his life.

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To get paid, though, retirees must first navigate a complicated process. It usually starts with medical evaluations by doctors under contract with the NFL plan. A two-person committee, one each representing the NFL and the NFLPA, then reviews the player’s claim.

If the committee members agree to approve a claim, the player gets paid. But if they disagree or if they deny the claim and the player appeals, the claim goes to the NFL plan board.

The board has six voting members, split evenly between the NFL and union. Federal law requires this split to give management and labor an equal say. But disabled former players have complained for years that this process is stacked against them because both the NFL and the union have incentives to suppress disability costs. Every approved claim cuts into revenue that would otherwise flow to league owners or player salaries.

“Retired players don’t really have a seat at the table,” attorney Smith said.

The union, in a statement, disputed this argument as “ridiculous,” citing increases in disability benefits it has won in negotiations with the NFL.

In 2007, however, these complaints attracted congressional attention. The House Judiciary and Senate Commerce committees invited NFL dignitaries to testify about the disability plan, including Hall of Fame coach Mike Ditka, former Dallas Cowboys star Daryl Johnston and Roger Goodell, who had just finished his first year as commissioner.

Goodell and Gene Upshaw, then NFLPA head, disputed accusations the plan mistreated players. But they said the claims process could be improved, and Goodell highlighted a new policy: Any player the Social Security Administration ruled disabled would automatically qualify for NFL disability payments, with no need to see an NFL plan doctor.

“The men who played professional football decades ago deserve our respect and recognition,” Goodell said.

Groom lawyer Ell also rejected allegations of wrongfully denying claims. Players upset about denied claims could sue, Ell noted. But they were usually unsuccessful, he wrote to lawmakers: Out of dozens of lawsuits filed by former players through 2007, only one had ended with a judgment against the NFL plan. Goodell and Upshaw also cited the plan’s record in court as proof of its fairness.

After congressional attention drifted away, however, the NFL plan’s record in the courts began to change.

The tides turn

Kelvin Moore lay motionless on the turf of the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., in August 1999 as the crowd at a preseason game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions fell silent.

The upcoming season had carried great promise for Moore, 24, who had grown up poor in South Central Los Angeles. An undrafted free agent defensive back out of Morgan State University, Moore spent most of his rookie season on the Bengals’ practice squad. As the 1999 season approached, however, coaches told reporters they expected Moore to compete for a starting job.

But then came the hit. As Moore closed in on a Lions receiver early in the third quarter, his foot got stuck in the turf, and he stumbled. Moore’s head struck the side of the receiver’s knee, and he crumpled to the turf.

Moore had broken the top vertebra in his spine. The game was delayed for 12 minutes while medical personnel loaded him onto a backboard and carted him off the field. After the game, a Bengals trainer said of Moore: “He’s lucky to be alive.”

Moore spent nearly two months in the hospital and wore a halo brace screwed into his skull for months after. His NFL career was over.

He regained the ability to walk but still occasionally lost feeling in his arms and legs. In July 2000, the NFL plan approved Moore for its most generous payments: $18,670 per month, or $224,040 per year.

Three years later, however, the plan cut off his payments. Moore was still afflicted with chronic pain in his neck and fatigue spells every two or three hours. But two NFL plan doctors believed he could work, under specific conditions.

“While Mr. Moore is significantly limited in his activities and physical abilities, I feel he is capable of gainful employment,” NFL plan medical adviser, Allen W. Jackson, wrote in a report. Jackson believed Moore could handle a “modified, sedentary type job . . . with intermittent breaks,” he wrote.

Over the next two years, Moore’s life fell apart. Unable to work, he moved back in with his father. He borrowed money from friends. At times, he discussed suicide, according to Ernest King, Moore’s neighbor.

“He felt useless and worthless,” King said in a phone interview. “He was in a real dark place.”

In December 2005, Moore decided to attempt to become just the second player to defeat the NFL plan in court. He sued.

Pursuing a lawsuit against an insurance plan with billions in assets and high-priced lawyers would be daunting enough. But Moore faced an even more difficult challenge because of a complex federal law known as ERISA, short for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

ERISA sets rules for benefit plans provided by employers, ranging from pension plans to disability programs. Many of those rules help ensure plans are adequately funded and treat employees fairly. But according to legal experts, rulings by a Supreme Court perceived as pro-business in the 1980s created protections for these plans in the courts.

In cases challenging the denial of benefits under an ERISA plan, the experts said, judges rarely allow two tactics that plaintiffs in other civil suits use to collect evidence: seeking documents via discovery and deposing witnesses. And to win an ERISA case, plaintiffs usually must convince a judge that a plan “abused its discretion.” A judge can’t simply disagree with a plan’s decision, the experts said, but must find the plan abusively ignored its own rules or evidence.

“It’s very difficult for a plaintiff to win these kinds of cases, so when they do, it’s a pretty strong signal that the rules were not followed,” said Colleen Medill, professor at Nebraska College of Law and an expert in ERISA.

The NFL plan responded to Moore’s suit by attempting to claw back more than $200,000 from him in a counterclaim. Moore owed the plan, Groom lawyers argued, for one year of disability payments he mistakenly received because of “administrative error.”

Moore’s attorney, Robert Scott, said in a phone interview he viewed this as an intimidation tactic.

“They knew he had no money and this would scare him,” Scott said.

Moore didn’t drop the case, though, and in 2008, he scored a rare victory against the plan in court. The U.S. Appeals Court in Pasadena, Calif., ordered the plan to reconsider, calling the medical evidence in his favor “unanimous.” The plan and Moore later settled, according to documents provided by the NFLPA, restoring his payments, with back pay.

The Moore case raised an issue that players had complained about for years: that doctors working for the NFL plan issued diagnoses that conflicted with their personal doctors’ and resulted in a reduced payment or an outright denial.

And after Moore, more players cried foul in the courts — and won.

The next was Andrew Stewart, a defensive end who played in the NFL from 1989 through 1994 and then the Canadian Football League until 2000.

Examining Stewart in 2009, one plan doctor found him disabled by arthritis caused by injuries he suffered in the NFL, including a broken hand, a torn ACL and a torn Achilles’ tendon. A second plan doctor, however, reviewed Stewart’s records and argued injuries he suffered in the CFL contributed, which reduced his payment.

Stewart sued. In 2012, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles ruled the plan had “arbitrarily discredited” the opinion of the doctor who actually evaluated Stewart in person and based its decision on “a mere scintilla” of evidence. He ordered the plan to increase Stewart’s payment.

Jimmie Giles, who played 13 years in the league as a tight end, also successfully fought back. Giles suffered from chronic back pain that stemmed from his playing career, which the league’s plan acknowledged. But it tried to blame part of his disability on obesity, it claimed in court filings, that “was not related to football,” reducing his payment.

Giles sued, and in November 2012, a judge ordered the plan to reconsider. The plan did — and came up with a new reason to justify a lower payment: Giles’s age, then 51, also contributed to his disability.

So Giles took the plan back to court. This time, the judge ordered the NFL plan to increase Giles’s payment.

“The Plan’s latest rationale for denying . . . benefits to Giles amounts to a ‘Hail Mary’ pass,” U.S. District Judge Ellen Lipton Hollander wrote in December 2013.

“Any excuse they could use to try to get out of paying me, they tried to use it,” Giles, 68, said in a phone interview. “I wasn’t asking for a handout. I just wanted what they owed me.”

Jesse Solomon’s career as a linebacker — nine seasons with six teams, retiring in 1995 — left him disabled by 2008, the Social Security Administration found, with chronic headaches, joint pain and depression his doctors tied to concussions.

But when the NFL plan approved Solomon’s claim in 2011, it argued his disability actually hadn’t begun until after 2010 — more than 15 years after his career ended — a cutoff date that reduced his payment.

Solomon sued and won.

In his March 2016 ruling, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis cited 11 pieces of evidence showing Solomon had been disabled long before 2010, including an MRI exam documenting brain damage in 2005 and a report from an occupational therapist finding him totally and permanently disabled in 2008.

“The evidence supporting Solomon’s position was overwhelming,” Garbis wrote. The NFL plan appealed and lost again, with the U.S. Appeals Court in Richmond ruling the plan’s attempt to reduce Solomon’s payment “relied on no evidence at all.”

Solomon, in a phone interview, blamed the union for not fighting harder for his claim.

“Billionaires are going to be greedy. That’s not a surprise. . . . We don’t have no one to represent us. That’s always been the issue,” Solomon said.

For Darryl Ashmore, the problem wasn’t what NFL plan doctors concluded but where they were located. Ashmore lived in Palm Beach, Fla. But when he applied in 2015, the NFL plan scheduled him for evaluations in three cities in six days: a neurological exam in San Antonio, followed by an orthopedic exam in Palm Beach and then a neuropsychological exam in Tampa.

Ashmore’s lawyer emailed a plan employee and asked for doctors near Palm Beach. “Mr. Ashmore, who is about 6-foot-7 and over 300 pounds, just physically cannot endure travel due to chronic pain in his neck, knees and back,” his attorney, Edward Dabdoub, wrote.

He followed up with a letter from Ashmore’s neurologist.

Ashmore’s “chronic back issues and radicular symptoms preclude him from flying, especially flights over an hour as he experiences a significant exacerbation of pain,” wrote Frank Conidi, who advised that the plan find doctors close to Ashmore’s home.

Instead, the plan rescheduled Ashmore’s evaluations for Atlanta. His lawyer complained again, but a plan employee informed him they didn’t have enough doctors near Palm Beach. Atlanta was the closest option.

Ashmore’s lawyer pushed for a compromise over travel arrangements but reached an impasse when a plan doctor refused to conduct his eight-hour evaluation over the course of two days. The NFL plan employee canceled Ashmore’s appointments and told his lawyer the plan would review his case.

A few weeks later, Ashmore received a letter telling him the plan denied his claim “because you failed to attend the scheduled appointment with a Plan neutral physician.”

“We were shocked at the reason but not surprised about the denial,” Dabdoub, Ashmore’s attorney, said in a phone interview. “The whole process felt like a deliberate effort to deny his claim.”

In June 2018, a federal judge in West Palm Beach ordered the NFL plan to approve Ashmore’s claim. “It defies all reason and common sense to deny benefits to a player for a missed medical examination when neither party was under the impression that examination would go forward,” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra wrote.

In the case of Tyrone Keys, a former defensive end for the Chicago Bears, the NFL plan blamed disabling arthritis in his shoulder, back and knee on a minor car accident and not the physical toll of six seasons of professional football. After paying Keys for 13 years, the plan cut off his payments in 2017, accusing him of failing to disclose a rear-end collision in 2002 the plan argued worsened his condition.

Keys, too, sued. In a 2020 ruling, U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell agreed Keys should have provided more information about the car crash in his application. But she still sharply criticized the NFL plan for ignoring reports from doctors who found Keys was already disabled before the accident.

“The board acted arbitrarily and capriciously in cherry-picking evidence,” Honeywell wrote. She ordered the board to reconsider, and the plan later settled the case, according to Keys’s attorney, Jeffrey Dahl.

Perhaps no former NFL player fought longer to win his disability payments than Charles Dimry. A former cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons and four other teams over 12 seasons, Dimry first applied for disability payments in 2014, after his doctor determined he was disabled because of football injuries, including spinal disk degeneration that required surgery. An NFL plan doctor, however, believed Dimry was able to work, and the plan denied his claim.

In 2016, Dimry sued. While the case was ongoing, the Social Security Administration ruled Dimry had been disabled since 2012, which should have qualified him for the NFL plan payments of about $10,000 per month. Instead, the plan approved him for about $5,000 per month.

The plan’s rationale? To qualify for the higher payment, Dimry needed to have become disabled within 15 years of his retirement in 2000. While the Social Security Administration ruled him disabled as of 2012, it didn’t actually make that ruling until 2016 — 16 years after Dimry retired. The plan chose the later date when determining Dimry’s payment.

In 2018, a federal judge in California ordered the NFL plan to reconsider Dimry’s claim and suggested it consider the Social Security ruling.

Instead, the plan’s board ignored the Social Security ruling and denied Dimry’s application for the higher payment. In 2019, Dimry sued for a second time and won again, with the judge this time ordering the NFL plan to increase his payment.

After a lengthy appeals process, the NFL plan started paying Dimry about $10,000 per month last year, eight years after he first applied, according to his attorney, Terrence Coleman.

“I have practiced in this area of disability insurance for nearly 30 years, against every major insurance company, and this was the worst conduct I have ever seen,” Coleman said in a phone interview. “The problem is, their strategy works. They fight and appeal and drag cases out for as long as possible, and many players just give up.”

Following orders

Giles hadn’t yet defeated the NFL plan in court, he said, when he confronted one of its board members one day in the late 2000s.

Giles was at a charity golf event in Mississippi, he said, when he saw Dave Duerson, retired safety for the Chicago Bears who, for several years, served as one of the NFLPA’s representatives on the disability plan board.

Giles approached Duerson, he said, and demanded to know why the board hadn’t approved his claim.

“He said, ‘Jimmie, we just do what we’re told. . . . The Groom law firm gives us the names and tells us how to vote,’” Giles recalled. In 2011, Duerson died by suicide and was later found to have been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive head trauma.

Giles, other former players and their lawyers have for years believed Groom lawyers held heavy sway over union board members who should have been fighting for their cases, keeping them from having to sue. But they didn’t have much evidence to support these theories. Until Michael Cloud got involved.

A Rhode Island native, Cloud set school rushing records at Boston College while earning a degree in sociology. In the NFL, he played primarily as a backup for three teams over seven seasons, attaining his most success with the New England Patriots, where he won a Super Bowl ring in 2003. Off the field, he was perhaps best known for a nickname bestowed on him by ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman, a play on the title of a Rolling Stones song: “Hey, you, get off of Mike Cloud.”

Like thousands of retired NFL players, Cloud played before the league took the dangers of concussions seriously. He had at least four concussions that he was aware of, he later told doctors, and as many as 20. In October 2004, when playing for the Giants, Cloud was knocked out of a game against the Minnesota Vikings with a concussion so severe that days later he did not recall how he had gotten back to New York. As was standard at the time, however, the Giants rushed Cloud back into action.

Later that season, Cloud’s memory started to falter. He struggled to remember basic plays. The Giants released him, and Cloud retired in 2006, at age 30.

After football, Cloud’s memory problems made it hard for him to keep a job. A stint in broadcasting ended because he couldn’t remember the names of players and coaches. Attempts to work as a personal trainer and a state trooper also ended in failure. In 2008, Cloud lost his house in foreclosure. The next year, he applied for NFL disability payments, citing memory problems, vertigo and pain caused by leg and foot surgeries.

The NFL plan initially denied his claim, but after Cloud applied again in 2010, the plan approved him for partial disability, based on his orthopedic injuries, paying about $39,000 per year. Cloud continued to see doctors about his cognitive problems, however. In 2012, a doctor diagnosed him with a neurocognitive disorder. Two years later, the Social Security Administration ruled him disabled because of his cognitive problems. Citing this decision, Cloud reapplied for NFL disability payments in 2014.

The plan approved Cloud for Inactive Football benefits, meant for players who become disabled within 15 years of retiring, which paid about $120,000 per year. Cloud’s lawyer thought he qualified for the plan’s highest level of payments — Active Football, for players disabled within one year of the end of their NFL careers, which paid $250,000 per year.

When Cloud retired from the NFL, his lawyer later explained in court filings, players were still largely unaware that concussions could increase risks of brain diseases and cognitive disorders. The NFL didn’t publicly acknowledge any long-term risks of concussions until 2009.

“I was an educated person … I don’t know too many BC graduates that are unable to hold a job. There’s a problem with me and my mind. Okay? I’m not making it up,” Cloud would later testify.

In February 2016, Cloud applied to have his payments increased. The NFL plan denied his request. In May 2020, Cloud sued.

Five seconds a case

With a relatively little-known former player and dense legal issues, Cloud’s case did not attract much attention as it made its way through the courts. But early on, the judge issued rulings that made history.

For instance: She ordered NFL plan board members to testify in depositions and at trial — both firsts. And in their testimony, two board members revealed a claims review process much less thorough than required by federal law, the judge found.

When a disability claim decision is appealed, federal law requires plans to conduct a “full and fair review” completely independent from the original decision, taking into account all relevant information. And attorneys for Groom have claimed that the NFL plan board, which handles disability appeals, does just that. The plan’s board members often review “voluminous records,” Groom lawyers wrote in a 2016 letter to the Labor Department produced as evidence in the Cloud case.

“It is typical for a claimant to submit hundreds or thousands of pages of documents, including their entire college and NFL medical records,” Groom attorneys Ell and Alvaro Anillo wrote.

But when former Vikings running back Smith, one of the union’s board representatives, was deposed in November 2021, he described a much less painstaking process. Before he voted to deny Cloud’s claim, Smith testified, he didn’t review any documents from Cloud’s 1,800-plus-page file, and neither did other board members.

“In Mr. Cloud’s case in 2016, what duties did the board delegate?” asked Cloud’s attorney, Christian Dennie.

“The review of the facts of the case, the medical records on the case, the — and the specifics of dates.”

“Who was being delegated that task?” Cloud’s lawyer asked.

“That, I don’t know,” Smith answered.

Smith did identify one document he reviewed: a one-page summary of the case, written by a Groom paralegal. The bottom of the page read: “THIS IS A SUMMARY ONLY. The Player’s complete file … should be reviewed prior to making a final determination.”

The Groom summary left out evidence, the judge found, that supported Cloud’s claim. To win his claim in 2016, according to plan rules, Cloud needed to show that his condition had changed since he last applied. The Groom memo incorrectly claimed that one of the new medical reports Cloud submitted had been included previously, and it failed to mention several new symptoms Cloud listed in his 2016 application, all giving the appearance nothing had changed. In fact, the judge found, Cloud’s condition had deteriorated.

Smith’s comments about not reading documents were echoed by the other board member deposed: Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass, who represented the NFL.

“I couldn’t read 500 pages of documents. It wasn’t practical,” Cass testified. “We’re entitled to delegate the responsibility to look at the records.”

Cass testified, however, that he was unsure who actually reviewed the documents in Cloud’s case on his behalf. He also didn’t remember why he voted to deny the claim. Cass declined to comment.

Both Smith and Cass testified that they believed the NFL plan’s Active Football payments were only for players who suffered injuries that immediately left them paralyzed.

“Active Football’s really for the catastrophic-type injuries. Darryl Stingley,” said Smith, referencing the former New England Patriots wide receiver whose career ended at 26, after a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed. But that’s not the case, the judge found: The plan, as written, stated that any player disabled shortly after retiring — by anything related to their NFL career — should qualify.

Before the trial, as Cloud’s lawyer sought documents relating to his case, he ran into pushback from a surprising source: the NFLPA. The union, which was not a party to the case, fought a subpoena from Cloud, court records show, as did attorneys at Groom.

The judge ordered the union to turn over records, expressing confusion at what she termed “stonewalling” that she suggested was coordinated with Groom lawyers. The union eventually complied, turning over hundreds of pages of records.

At the trial, Cloud’s lawyer highlighted one critical email exchange that demonstrated just how little attention had been paid to Cloud’s claim. In an email, an NFL plan employee described the meeting during which the board denied Cloud’s claim “was done in like 10 minutes.” The board reviewed 114 claims that day, other records show.

“That’s 5.26 seconds per case,” said Dennie, Cloud’s attorney, during the trial. “Do you think there was some big, wild, elaborate discussion in 5.26 seconds per case? No. There was not … Those decisions were reached before they got to that board meeting.”

Groom attorney Ed Meehan, in his closing argument, defended the plan’s process for reviewing claims.

“We . . . believe we have a process that is collaborative, that gets the best of the volunteers . . . people like Mr. Smith. . . . And if this had to be reconfigured in some other way, it is so hard to tell how that would even work,” Meehan said.

Judge Scholer felt differently. She ordered the NFL plan to pay Cloud the Active Football sum — $265,000 annually — as well as more than $1 million in back pay to 2014, when he first applied. The payments are on hold pending the outcome of the plan’s appeal.

When she delivered her order, Judge Scholer accused the NFL plan and Groom of applying an “evolving and sometimes tortured interpretation” of plan terms and rules to justify denying claims such as Cloud’s.

“If … Active Football benefits are not to be awarded to, undisputedly, totally and permanently disabled players who suffer from debilitating, progressive, chronic brain disease caused by their playing for the NFL, why in the world does the Plan not say so? Two sentences, it can say that,” she said.

She then remarked that Groom attorneys had, at one point, cited the plan’s record in the courts as a reason to trust it was well managed. She expressed skepticism.

“The defendant seems to argue to the Court that if their system ain't broke, don't fix it,” she said.

“Well, based on the mountain of evidence set forth in trial, it is clear to me that the plan is broke and it’s time to fix it.”

‘A big game’

In 2020, as the pandemic and George Floyd dominated major news coverage, hostility between retired NFL players and the union again erupted into public view.

That March, the NFL and the union came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. In the weeks after, word circulated among disabled retirees that, as part of the agreement, the NFLPA had agreed to major concessions.

The NFL plan would no longer automatically approve payments for a player ruled disabled by the Social Security Administration. Every player seeking disability payments would need to be evaluated by an NFL plan doctor. And many disabled retired players also getting Social Security payments would see their NFL payments cut by the amount they also get from the federal government.

That July, two retired players sued the NFL, the NFLPA and the NFL benefits plan over the changes. The case was later dismissed, but amid the uproar, the league and the union agreed to put the payment deductions on hold until 2024, pending further negotiations.

Cloud declined several interview requests for this story. During his deposition in 2021, a Groom lawyer asked Cloud why he felt he had been mistreated by the NFL disability plan. Cloud meandered in his response, mentioning missing medical reports and holes in his brain.

But eventually, he landed on a sentiment that had been expressed before, in different words, by other disabled retired players.

For years, Cloud explained, his dealings with the NFL plan, as he sought his disability payments, felt like “a big game … being played against me.”

“I don’t think that was an accident,” Cloud said. “I think it was on purpose.”