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NFL is focus of Senate hearing

Goodell, Upshaw are among those scheduled to testify in front of committee investigating the league's long-term disability program.

September 18, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The last time Congress held a hearing to investigate allegations that pro football's pension and disability plans were falling short, top NFL leadership was nowhere to be seen.

That won't be the case today when the Senate Commerce Committee conducts an oversight hearing focusing on the NFL's long-term disability program that some former players describe as broken. This time, Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Assn. Executive Director Gene Upshaw are scheduled to testify at the hearing, which is chaired by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Appearing on the same panel as Goodell and Upshaw will be Hall of Fame members Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers, both of whom have been critical of the NFL's system that governs disability payments and is jointly operated by the league and the NFLPA.

There will be a second panel consisting of former players, including former Dallas Cowboy Daryl Johnston, now a Fox Sports broadcaster; Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bear and a trustee for the NFL's retirement plan; former Minnesota Viking and UCLA Bruin Brent Boyd, who testified before a House panel; and Bill Bain, a former Ram who also played for USC.

The committee also will hear from Garrett Webster, whose Hall of Fame father, Mike, struggled unsuccessfully to win a disability benefit; the former Pittsburgh Steeler died while his case was working through the court system. His estate won a court judgment that the league and union are appealing.

The Senate hearing comes only months after a pair of House subcommittees held fact-gathering hearings to investigate the claims of retired players who say it takes too long to qualify for minimal disability payments.

Those sessions were prompted in part by concerns voiced by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who had intervened in a disability proceeding for a family friend. That failed attempt, Waters said, led her to believe that the league and union weren't treating retirees and their families in a dignified manner.

Dorgan, who described the hearing as "a fact-finding" exercise, said he has no immediate plan to seek a legislative solution. He said he had "no personal story or anecdote or connection" to a former player who has had a difficult time obtaining disability payments.

"I'm a football fan, I watch football on TV and I've rooted for the Minnesota Vikings since I was a little boy," Dorgan said. "But I've read about and listened to and watched the controversy. Football is a big business, a big industry in this country. There are wealthy owners and lots of wealthy players these days, so there's a great deal of money involved."

Today's hearing comes slightly more than a week after Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered a life-threatening injury during a Sept. 9 game against the Denver Broncos. The second-year player suffered what doctors initially described as "catastrophic damage" to his spinal cord. Though Everett appears to be making dramatic strides, it remains uncertain whether he'll regain total use of his limbs.

Everett apparently would qualify for full disability benefits because the grim injury occurred during a game, and he had to be carried off the field and was subjected to immediate and intense medical care. Everett would qualify for $224,000 per year for life in disability payments, along with full pay for the remainder of the season, medical coverage that would continue for five years after he leaves the game and other benefits.

Nothing is so clear-cut for the growing number of former players who allege that the disability system is negligent when it comes to dispensing benefits to retirees who suffer from such problems as hip injuries and early-onset dementia linked to on-the-field blows.

Some former players say the system runs counter to their interests because it often is difficult to prove that medical conditions that surface years after retirement are caused by the on-the-field battering they withstood. Retirees also question why players who have taken pensions can't apply for medical disability payments as well.

According to statistics provided by the league and union, 1,052 former players have applied for disability payments in the last 15 years. Of that total, 428 were approved, 576 were denied and 48 cases are still pending.

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), who chaired the most recent House subcommittee to investigate the retirement and pension system, questioned how only 3% of the league's past and present players are receiving disability payments despite playing in a league where "half of all players retire because of injury [and] 60% of players suffer a concussion."

The union maintains that current players have no legal obligation to fund improvements to pension and medical benefits for former players. Yet, since 1993, players have shifted about $138 million to do just that.

And in July, Goodell and Upshaw sat side by side at the NFLPA headquarters to unveil a new coalition that will try to ease suffering among former athletes who have fallen on hard times.

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greg.johnson@latimes.com

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