It was a day of tears -- but also relief - for retired NFL players who hope their accounts of debilitating football injuries will move Congress to demand reform of a "broken" disability benefits system.
"Thank God for Congress. Maybe they're going to do something," Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure said after a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee heard from four former players, an NFL representative and others.Members of the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law listened to former players, including Hall of Famers Harry Carson and Mike Ditka. Some lawmakers expressed sympathy for retired players' plights and said they would study possible reforms. Several lawmakers said they would consider legislation strengthening ex-players' rights to be part of union activities, while others said they wanted the arbitration process speeded up.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat whose husband, Sidney Williams, played in the NFL (including one season with the Baltimore Colts), said she was alarmed to learn that little more than 300 players currently qualify for disability benefits. Since up to 10,000 have played in the league, "that does not compute. Football is a dangerous game," Waters said.
Douglas W. Ell, counsel to the players' retirement plan, said the system has been unfairly maligned.
"Unfortunately, a great deal of what has been said or written about the benefits available to NFL players has been wrong or misleading," Ell told the panel. "The players association and the NFL have created the most generous disability benefits in professional sports, and possibly the entire business world," he said.
The retirement plan's fund contains $1.1 billion and covers retirement, disability and death benefits. Retired players can receive $110,000 per year if they are declared "totally and permanently disabled" within 15 years after leaving football. There are also various levels of partial disability.
Former players apply for benefits through administrators in Baltimore. The applicant is sent to a retirement board-approved physician. If the player disagrees with the decision, he can appeal to a retirement board composed of three NFL management representatives and three players union representatives.
"The door is then slammed shut on the player," said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat. "The door is shut and there is no one there."
Of 1,052 initial claims since 1993, 675 have been denied at the initial stage, according to written testimony provided to the panel.
Thirty-two players have sued to try to win benefits, and almost none have succeeded. Seven such lawsuits are pending.
"It's right versus wrong, period," Ditka told the panel. "Do the ethical thing or do the wrong thing. And they've chosen to do the wrong thing."
Dennis Curran, an NFL senior vice president, said the league is open to revisiting the rule that says players have a 15-year window after retirement to file certain claims.
"Fifteen years is really a joke," said Carson, who is 53. "Having been out of the league 19 years, I'm starting to feel things. The whole post-concussion thing has manifested itself over the years."
Earlier in the day, a dozen retired NFL players appeared at a news conference to promote their cause. One by one, they walked or were assisted to the National Press Club lectern.
There was former Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Brian DeMarco, who cleared his throat and apologized for becoming "emotional" as he described being homeless three times in recent years. He said he has rods and screws in his back and can barely walk but that he has been in a long fight over benefits.
There was Garrett Webster, the son of the late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who said his father "died cold, alone, on the floor" and addicted to painkillers. He was dead by the time a federal judge in Baltimore awarded his family significant new pension benefits in 2005.
There was Bernie Parrish, a white-haired former Cleveland Browns defensive back, who said: "We have been betrayed, and we're not going to take it anymore."
And there was Sandra Unitas, the widow of Baltimore Colts legend John Unitas. She held up a hook with a rubberized handle that she said her Hall of Fame husband used to button his shirts because of an injury dating to a 1968 preseason game.
DeMarco, Webster, Parrish and Unitas said they believed there were troubling holes in a system that some called "broken." Parrish said he and others had lost faith in the NFL Players Association's resolve to defend their interests. Gene Upshaw, the union's executive director, declined an invitation to attend the hearing, the committee said.
Sandra Unitas, 63, said her husband was "very, very disappointed" that his disability claim was denied for a tendon injury in his famous right arm - a rejection the NFL says was warranted because Unitas was healthy enough to hold a job.
Former Miami Dolphins running back Eugene "Mercury" Morris said he saw a message in the treatment of Unitas. "If they did that to Johnny Unitas, then they'll do that to anybody," Morris said.
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