The National Football League is more than just a kids' sport played by grown men.
It is a multibillion-dollar industry and its fans pay top dollar to see bone-crushing hits and skull-rattling tackles that players endure for more than 16 weeks a year.
But what the fans don't see is what happens after a player walks away from the game or in the case of so many NFL veterans, what happens when a player hobbles away from a sport that is "not a contact sport, but a collision sport," as legendary coach Mike Ditka described it.
'Don't Make Proud Men Beg'
Criticism of the NFL's retirement and disabilities plan has grown and retired players are pushing the league and their union to do more to treat injuries and health problems that stem from years of contact play.
In response, Gene Upshaw, the NFL Players Association's executive director, went to Congress today to push for a change in federal law to give the union more power in what it can do for retired players filing for disability benefits.
The Senate Commerce Committee held what Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called a "fact-finding mission" to examine the NFL's long-term disability program, a system that the Ditka of today called "broken."
"The system is broken. Fix it. … The money is there," Ditka said. "Don't make proud men beg. Don't make them jump through hoops."
The issue was taken up by the House earlier this summer, but the Senate hearing featured the two men at the center of this storm — Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, both of whom failed to show up in June.
The Senate hearing comes just a week after the life-threatening injury suffered by Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett — it was an injury that was mentioned several times during today's hearing.
Everett suffered what doctors originally deemed "catastrophic damage" to his spinal cord, but his prognosis has improved and he is showing movement in his hands.
Because his injury occurred during a game, Everett qualifies for full disability benefits from the NFL — $224,000 per year for life, full pay for the rest of this season and medical coverage for up to five years after he leaves the NFL.
Injuries Haunt Players, Shorten Life Span
For retired players whose injuries come after they have left the game and have already started drawing a pension, the process is not so clear.
According to statistics presented by Upshaw today, 1,052 former players have applied for disability benefits in the last 15 years. Of those players, 428 were approved, 576 were denied and 48 cases are pending.
The Senate committee heard compelling testimony from former NFL players and relatives who have tried to navigate the system and came up short and frustrated.
Brent Boyd asked to be permitted to speak beyond his allotted five minutes because his disability makes him speak slowly and he has a difficult time getting his thoughts together clearly.
Boyd said that people don't want to hear about the ugly side of the NFL and that he is aware that he is putting a damper on the party. He held up 200 letters that former players have written to him supporting him in his efforts to fight for greater benefits.
Boyd was profiled on ESPN's "Outside the Lines," where he talked about repeated concussions that had left him with dizziness, headaches and memory loss. After being released from the Minnesota Vikings in 1986, Boyd could not hold down a job and suffered from depression and other health issues.
It took 13 years before doctors connected Boyd's depression and health problems to the concussion he suffered as an NFL player.
Boyd went to the NFL Player's Association for assistance, but soon discovered roadblocks to getting disability benefits.
Boyd saw two association-approved doctors who said he was disabled because of football injuries. The board sent him to a third doctor who said the opposite, allowing it to deny his claim for concussion-related disability benefits. Boyd took his case to a federal court, which ruled against him based on that third opinion.
Upshaw said the current NFL system can be improved and the union is determined to expedite the process of disability claims.