NFL, Union Called to Congress

With a questionable record for approving disability claims by former players, the NFL and its embattled players association will be asked to explain the process in a June 26  congressional hearing, a former NFL star and congressional sources told The Baltimore Sun.  The House Judiciary Committee confirmed yesterday that it is inviting witnesses for an “oversight” hearing, which means it is not necessarily tied to any legislative action and is intended to educate members.  The hearing is to be held by the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, chaired by Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, a California Democrat.  Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, who played for the New York Giants, said he has been asked to appear.  The NFL recently announced that 284 former players are receiving disability payments totaling $19 million this year. Some of those recipients, the league said, get as much as $224,000 annually.  But that’s from a pool of approximately 9,000 retired players.  Many former players say they distrust a system that sometimes takes two years for a resolution and often sends them to doctor after doctor.  “A lot of these players are losing when they are before the [retirement] board,” said a committee staff member.  Because the hearings have not been announced formally, no aide from the committee would be quoted by name.
Among the things the panel wants to look at is whether cases should come to arbitration sooner than they do, and whether players were disproportionately losing cases related to benefits.  Some retired players get lost in the system.  Jennifer Smith, executive director of Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, which provides temporary help for former players in need, pointed to one such case.  She said her organization is supplying money for rent, food and prescriptions for the family of a 35-year-old former player with two children who “is as crippled as anybody I have ever seen.”  Smith declined to identify the player but said he had been trying for four years to get a response from the union and “hasn’t been assigned a doctor to go see.”  “This is a fairly significant NFL player who spent the money he had left after his career on his personal medical care,” she said.  “He was unable to work.  So we have come into the picture and stabilized the situation.  We paid their rent for them; not just one month, but for four months.  “If the guy had been collecting disability, the family wouldn’t be in this situation.”  According to committee staff, interest in the process did not originate with any single lawmaker, but rather from a general concern over whether the system is working fairly and effectively to resolve issues related to retired players and disability.  The National Football League Players Association’s retirement board consists of six trustees who render disability judgments.  Three are management representatives: Ravens president Dick Cass, Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill and Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt.  The other three are considered player representatives and include former players Tom Condon, Jeff Van Note and Dave Duerson. 
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the Philadelphia Daily News last week that all disability rulings must be unanimous or they go to an independent arbitrator. In the past 14 years, only one disability claim has gone to an arbitrator.  Yesterday, Aiello acknowledged that the league had been contacted by the subcommittee, but he deferred comment on details to the committee.  The NFLPA did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.  It is believed that both commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw will be invited to speak, along with several players who either have gone through the process or are familiar with it.  A university professor or other arbitration expert also may be asked to testify.  Former players who already have been asked to participate are Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka and Carson.

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