Congress Keeps Eye on NFL's Treatment of Disabled Players

The NFL offers several forms of assistance to disabled players. Under its main plan, players are eligible for anywhere from $18,000 to $224,000 a year, depending on when they played and the types of injuries they have sustained. But only four players have qualified for the maximum level of payments since 1993. And many of the former players who have tried to obtain benefits have described the process in nightmarish terms.

Applications first go to a two-person Disability Initial Claims Committee. They then move to a Retirement Board that contains three members appointed by the NFL and three by the NFLPA. The board generally does not meet with the players or their physicians, but can ask them for additional medical reports, and has full discretion to accept whatever evidence it finds convincing.

Currently, the Retirement Board includes Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill; Ravens president Dick Cass; Chiefs owner Clark Hunt; Tom Condon, who heads the football division at Creative Artists Agency and represents Upshaw; former All-Pro center Jeff Van Note, who is now a broadcaster; and former All-Pro safety Dave Duerson. None of the six members is a doctor or disability expert.

If Congress chooses to act, it could affect the NFL's business in a wide variety of ways. The federal government regulates interstate commerce and workplace safety and has allowed the league to remain largely exempt from antitrust laws. In June, Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., said that inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could start showing up at NFL workouts.

"I believe we could mandate almost any conditions that we wanted to," Feeney told The New York Times.

The congressional investigations could also broaden to include a look at pensions for retired NFL players, another subject of considerable controversy in recent months.

"This could go next to Ted Kennedy's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions," said one commerce committee staff member, who asked to remain anonymous while predicting what members of the Senate might do next.

According to his spokesman, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't lobbied Congress despite the threat of action. It's more likely, however, that after the CRS report on the disability plan is complete, Congress will amend federal labor laws to change the structure of the Retirement Board. In September, Upshaw proposed legislative action to give the union control of the board.

"Since the NFLPA has been criticized when applications are denied … it makes sense for the players to be the ones making the disability decisions," he told the Senate.

But many key members of Congress feel the board should be independent of both the league and the union, one way or another. At the June hearings, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., repeatedly told the NFLPA's lawyers that independent professionals, not NFL and players' association appointees, should be on the board.

In September, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., suggested that the board should be made up of doctors -- and Goodell said he was "not opposed" to that idea. And Waters, who is married to former NFL player Sidney Williams and has said she personally was frustrated by the NFLPA when she tried to help a friend obtain disability benefits, reportedly is looking into a congressional takeover of the plan.

"We do not believe that congressional action is necessary," the NFL's Aiello told "The current system is a product of collective bargaining within the statutory, regulatory and legal framework established by Congress, various federal agencies and the federal courts. These are issues that must be addressed in the next round of collective bargaining."

Peter Keating writes about sports business for ESPN The Magazine.

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