A congressional committee says it has "serious questions" about the disability benefits system for NFL players and is asking the Congressional Research Service to conduct a study so lawmakers can determine whether a legislative remedy is needed.
The study "will provide the essential facts to help us consider what steps, if any, Congress could take on this issue in the future," the House Judiciary Committee said yesterday in a letter.
The letter was sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and a similar - although not identical - version went to NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw. To assist with the study, the committee is asking the league and the union for information about the disability and pension systems. The committee, chaired by Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., says it wants to know, for example, how many players have retired because of injuries and what sorts of injuries they suffered.
The committee requested the answers be delivered to Washington in two weeks.
"Professional football is a very dangerous sport," Conyers said in a prepared statement. "It is common for former players to suffer lingering injuries from their playing days. I am greatly concerned that many of those most debilitated by their injuries are finding it difficult to receive disability benefits. Many former players denied these benefits have difficulty performing even the simplest physical tasks."
The Congressional Research Service is the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.
The NFL said it is cooperating with the inquiry.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the House Committee," league spokesman Greg Aiello said yesterday. "We are confident that our collectively bargained program will be seen as providing substantial benefits to retired players and their families."
The retired players' complaints became news when such prominent figures as former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and the widow of former Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas joined less well-known players this year in accusing union and league officials of abandoning needy players. The retirement plan's fund contains $1.1 billion and covers retirement, disability and death benefits. Retired players can receive $110,000 a year if they are declared "totally and permanently disabled" within 15 years of leaving football. There are also various levels of partial disability.
On June 26, the committee heard testimony from former players such as Ditka, Harry Carson and Brent Boyd. The hearing "exposed serious questions about why only a small percentage of former players receive disability benefits in such a dangerous sport," the letter to Goodell said.
Upshaw has defended the integrity of the system but has proposed measures to speed it up so players don't have to wait months or longer for aid. Some of what Upshaw wants would require changes in federal law.