Congress Keeps Eye on NFL's Treatment of 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, 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 "Sometimes you don't keep track of something when you don't want to know what the answers are."

"We are still in the information-gathering steps," Sanchez said. "But we're not going to go away, throw our hands in the air and let the league and the players' association run the system the way they want."

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.

But since then, individual senators have pursued the subject on their own. Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and David Vitter, R-La., sent a series of nine questions to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who replied in writing. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., sent queries to Goodell and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, and met privately with retired players. And Sen. John Ensign, R-Ariz., met with Boyd, who recently launched Dignity After Football, an advocacy group for disabled former players.

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