Ex-players, league officials find common ground

9/19/2007 - NFL

WASHINGTON -- Disabled players begged tearfully for help.

The son of the late Mike Webster, an NFL Hall of Fame center, described his father begging for food while the league's disability system dithered over his claim.

Another NFL legend, Gale Sayers, joined the chorus, pleading for "help to fix this problem."

Mike Ditka, a union nemesis, suggested his own ideas for improving the plight of ex-players.

Gene Upshaw, the leader of the NFL players union, asked for assistance even as he offered a powerful defense of the current disability system. After he laid out the enormous progress players and their union have made under his leadership -- their share of league revenues has doubled -- Upshaw presented for consideration three specific ideas for reform and asked the Senate to act on them.

Even the system's staunchest defender and one of its six trustees, former Bears' safety Dave Duerson, admitted the system could be made better.

So maybe there's common ground, after all. They still differ about the extent of the problem, but they seemed to agree that improvements are possible.

Too bad the U.S. senators they were talking to weren't interested.

All the pleas and all the suggestions were given Tuesday morning to the Senate Commerce Committee, which is looking into the way the NFL and its union treat their disabled ex-players. But although the hearing attracted a load of league and union brass, a large media contingent, and a dozen players with grievances -- including Conrad Dobler, Mercury Morris, Delvin Williams and others -- the senators apparently have little desire to do anything about the issue.

"I hope we never have to act and set up some sort of accountability," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). "People must wonder why we are even in this. My hope is the league will act."

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chaired the meeting, agreed.

"I'm not interested in legislating," Dorgan said.

But if legislation is what it will take to help solve the problem, any senator who might have been listening would have heard some good ideas about where to start.

After weeks of criticism and attacks from older players about the status quo, Upshaw clearly was prepared both to defend the system he helped build and to consider new ideas. He offered a reform agenda that ought to be of interest to working people throughout America.

"We need standards for workers' compensation on a national level," Upshaw said. "When the cases are decided state by state [as they are now], workers are forced to take lump sum settlements and give up future benefits."

Challenging the senators to act, Upshaw projected that federal workers' compensation standards would "allow immediate payments for injuries and disabilities and preserve lifetime benefits."

Upshaw also suggested that his union -- and all unions -- should decide disability cases involving their membership, which would involve a major change in labor law.

In his final suggestion for legislative reform, Upshaw asked the senators to reverse a ruling from the U.S. Department of Labor that requires an early review, by a two-person panel, of disability claims.

"You could eliminate this bottleneck," Upshaw told the senators.

Upshaw's reform package would be "the perfect labor platform for a presidential candidate," observed a veteran Chicago labor lawyer who attended the hearing but asked not to be named. "It would solve the most difficult problems unions face in disability cases."

Ditka suggested replacing the current disability board, which currently consists of three owner representatives and three player representatives, with a board of doctors.

"If the doctors say that the condition is not from football, then it is not from football," Ditka said. "That's it. That would work."

Although Upshaw and Ditka are on opposite sides of what has become a very public and bitter dispute, the senators treated their testimony in similar fashion on Tuesday -- with no discernible interest whatsoever. At one point, when Ditka made his suggestion about a board of doctors, the only two senators in the room ignored it. Dorgan was conferring with an aide, and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) abruptly changed the subject completely and suggested that the NFL somehow could learn something from the military's veterans disability system, which is in complete disarray.

One senator, however, did offer some sympathy for the players' plight.

"I never played football. I was a cheerleader," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. "I didn't have any big linemen chasing me."

Then she paused and corrected herself: "Maybe I did."

McCaskill suggested that the players should operate the fund.

"If it is money that is set aside for the players [in the $1.1 billion player pension and disability fund], then why are the owners involved in the decisions?" she asked.

When McCaskill asked NFL commissioner Roger Goodell if he would agree to remove the three owner representatives from the disability board, he artfully ducked the question, saying only that "we would consider anything that would improve the system."

Although the senators gave no indication that they are prepared to take any sort of definitive action, both Upshaw and Goodell agreed during and after the hearing that improvements must be made.

Maybe the hearing accomplished something, after all.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.