Congress questions NFL record-keeping on disabled players
While the NFL has insisted that it is committed to helping disabled former players, the league does not maintain records of which players, or how many, are driven from the game by injury, ESPN.com has learned.That fact is contained in more than 2,000 pages of documents the NFL and NFL Players Association delivered to the House Judiciary Committee last month. It has startled members of Congress who are investigating the NFL's disability benefits. And it has added to a growing feeling among key members of the House and Senate that the league's business practices deserve increased scrutiny and possibly new regulation.
"Neither the NFL nor the NFLPA keeps data on players who retire due to injury, a simple fact that I find amazing," Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, told ESPN.com. "Sometimes you don't keep track of something when you don't want to know what the answers are."
Sanchez's subcommittee, a subset of the House Judiciary Committee, held hearings on the league's disability benefits plan on June 26 this year. Emotional testimony was offered at those hearings by several former players, including Brent Boyd, a Vikings offensive lineman whose career was ended by injuries and who has spent a decade fighting for the highest category of disability benefits."The [NFL Retirement] Board's tactics are to delay, deny and hope we die," Boyd testified. Boyd and other retired players found a sympathetic audience among House members, who at times seemed irritated with statements made by the NFL and NFLPA. At one point in the June hearings, Douglas Ell, chief attorney for the disability plan and the NFLPA, revealed that 317 players were receiving disability payments, out of about 7,900 who are retired. "In one of the most dangerous sports in the history of mankind, only 300 players are receiving disability payments?" an incredulous Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., asked. Despite such criticism, the NFL said it has not been lobbying Congress against taking action on disability benefits. "To the contrary, we have been fully cooperative with the interested members and committees and have provided the information they have requested," league spokesman Greg Aiello said. "If a proposal is advanced with respect to disability benefits, we would review and comment on it in a respectful and constructive way." On Sept. 18, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation took up the disability benefits issue. Members of that chamber seemed markedly less interested in the subject than their House counterparts -- only a handful attended.
The NFL and NFLPA have created several vehicles beyond the league's basic disability plan to assist injured former players. But these programs are in embryonic stages of development, and in some cases they have triggered grumbling among the families they are supposed to be helping.
For example, last year, the league and union announced the 88 Plan, which was named after the uniform number of ailing Hall of Famer John Mackey and promised up to $88,000 a year to retired players with dementia, whatever the cause. The news made national headlines, and in May, the Alzheimer's Association of New York honored NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw for his role in developing the plan.
So far, the 88 Plan has disbursed $861,502.64 to former players, an average of less than $17,000 per case.
The details of the 88 Plan came as a nasty surprise to at least one recipient.
"The way Roger Goodell and Gene Upshaw worded the plan, it sounded as if I could receive up to $88,000 a year to pay for whatever care my husband needed," Sharon Hawkins told ESPN.com. Sharon's husband, Wayne, a five-time AFL All-Star who played for the Raiders in the 1960s, has dementia and is unable to perform simple daily tasks.
After applying for benefits, the Hawkinses learned that the 88 Plan offers a maximum of $54,000 for retired players living at home, even though home care is typically more expensive. It's also a reimbursement program: Families shell out, then wait to get paid back. If they cannot afford the bills in the first place, they are out of luck. To date, the 88 Plan has approved 73 player applications, but only 51 have incurred reimbursable expenses, ESPN.com has learned.
Further, family members, such as wives who act as primary caregivers, cannot collect 88 Plan funds to care for retirees. So Sharon Hawkins either has to pay someone else to care for Wayne, or she can divorce her husband of 46 years to qualify as his caregiver.
"That's not going to happen," she said.
Wayne Hawkins' prescriptions are reimbursed by the 88 Plan, but only when the plan gets around to it. "I haven't heard from them since July," Sharon says. "And it actually comes to $40 a month. BFD.
"Pardon my language," she adds.
"Some may not understand the requirements at first, but our office provides a thorough explanation of what is needed to qualify [for the 88 Plan], such as a diagnosis of dementia from a specialist and receipts from a service provider," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told ESPN.com.
Aiello added, "Private insurance and government programs that deal with these kinds of needs are generally structured as reimbursement programs. This is not an income supplement, but a program to provide a specific type of care."
The NFL, NFLPA, NFL Alumni Association and Hall of Fame have also created the NFL Alliance, which announced in July that it would spend $7 million to help injured former players. And last month, the league pledged $10 million to the Alliance for joint replacement surgery, cardiovascular screenings and assisted living for retired players. But the Alliance hasn't distributed any of that money. It has not yet established eligibility guidelines for former players or selected doctors or hospitals to provide the care it intends to offer.
-- Peter Keating
Asked this week about disabling injuries, the union suggested it is the league's job to track the reasons players retire."Perhaps you should ask the NFL this question -- or each team individually," an NFLPA spokesperson told ESPN.com. Meanwhile, the NFL said it is difficult to determine why players leave the game. "Other reasons players retire would be declining skill, the team has decided to go younger, the team says it will no longer pay the player at that level for cap reasons and the player decides it's time to hang it up," Aiello told ESPN.com. "In all those cases, an older player like that may also have some injuries from his long career. Did he retire 'due to injury'?"