Judiciary Committee blasts NFL, union over medical care

Originally Published: April 9, 2008
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

The House Judiciary Committee blasted the NFL and the NFL Players Association on Wednesday, issuing a statement that the league's medical care system is "subject to a variety of conflicts of interest which appear to be detrimental to players," and threatening to impose new regulations on its benefits plans.

Lawmakers on the committee were reacting to the findings of a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on player disabilities and benefits, which the Judiciary Committee made public Wednesday.

"This report identifies major concerns about the long-term health of NFL players that demand further attention," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "The Committee intends to hold hearings and explore possible legislation to address this matter."

The 145-page CRS report was compiled by a nonpartisan team of researchers. Among its findings:

Nobody tracks the health of retired players. "Comprehensive data about the health of former players apparently are not collected and maintained, either by the NFLPA or the NFL, or by a third party," the report states. "Neither the players association nor the league collects data on number or percentage of players who retire because of an injury or injuries." The NFL has said that from 1993 to 2004, 181 players left the game after failing to pass preseason physicals because of injuries. But that total does not include players who retired without attempting to pass physicals the following season.

The league has not relied on independent research in establishing medical care policies. As the Judiciary Committee put it in its statement: "The NFL has … consistently selected individuals and organizations that are affiliated, either directly or indirectly, with the NFL to conduct research on subjects and issues related to player health."

The union has little authority over health issues. "The extent of the NFLPA's authority and capabilities regarding health and safety issues, and its position on such issues are, at times, unclear," according to the report. The report points out that while the NFLPA is part of a joint committee on player safety and welfare, it doesn't have any committees of its own on injuries, safety or health. It also notes that the union's medical adviser is a part-time position.

The report found that the NFLPA has been especially absent on the issue of concussions.

"It appears that the NFLPA has not commented publicly on any of the issues, such as the possible long-term effects of concussions and the possibility that multiple mild traumatic brain injuries could result in chronic [brain damage]," the report states. "The extent of the authority of the NFLPA medical adviser regarding the [league concussion] committee's decisions, actions, and recommendations is unclear, as are his possible courses of action, if any, should he disagree with the decisions of the committee. Additionally, the NFLPA's involvement in the MTBI [committee]'s development of the concussion management guidelines and, specifically, the return-to-play guidelines is unclear."

Inexplicably, players have limited access to their own medical records. An NFL player is allowed to see his medical and athletic-trainer files only twice a year: once during the preseason and once after the regular season. The CRS report states: "The rationale for not permitting a player to see his records during the preseason and regular season is unclear."

The funding of the NFL's retirement plan is based on unclear calculations. Like any benefits system, the NFL retirement plan relies on various actuarial assumptions to decide how much money it needs to stay well-funded. The CRS researchers found that some of the plan's assumptions make sense, but they couldn't figure out where others come from. "The 'football-related disability rates' factor apparently is not based on [an actuarial] table … The method and information used for determining these rates is unclear."

Ominously, the CRS report asks: "Is it possible that retired [that is, inactive] players' needs for medical care exceed the amount of funds for disability benefits that are calculated using this disability rate?"

In response, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello stated: "We appreciate Chairman Conyers' recognition of the positive steps that we have already taken with the NFLPA to address the medical needs of our players. Earlier this month, additional significant improvements in our medical and disability benefits took effect. We look forward to reviewing the report and to continuing our efforts to identify additional opportunities to enhance the health and safety of our players and the benefits available to our retirees and their families."

Aiello added that the league would be responsive to the Judiciary Committee's inquiries and was seeking a meeting with leading members to discuss recent changes to the disability benefits system.

NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis said the players association would decline comment until it could analyze the CRS report and Judiciary Committee statement.

Advocates for disabled players, in contrast, were overjoyed.

"Today's report validates every criticism we have raised about this system, and underscores the urgent need for reform," said Brent Boyd, a former player who testified last year about his own protracted and unsuccessful battle to obtain full disability benefits from the NFL, and who has founded the group Dignity After Football. "Congress has clearly heard the testimony of numerous retired players, and now the nonpartisan, highly respected Congressional Research Service has exposed the flaws and echoed our concerns."

Some members of the Judiciary Committee who were waiting for the CRS report now plan to use its findings to push for changes in how the NFL's retirement and disability benefits plans are regulated.

"We're looking at eight different things," said one member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the committee has not decided precisely what legislation to introduce. "We might have OSHA, the federal agency that oversees health and safety standards in other industries, look into workplace issues in the NFL. We might require studies on player injuries to be done independently. We might require representation for retired players in the players union. We're very concerned about the entire process players go through."

The CRS report is based in part on congressional research and in part on answers the NFL and NFLPA supplied to written questions the Judiciary Committee asked last autumn. Today, the committee also posted those answers.

Peter Keating writes about sports business for ESPN The Magazine.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

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