Ten former National Football League players have filed a lawsuit against the NFL. More specifically, they are suing the league’s disability benefit program, commissioner Roger Goodell and the disability board. The players allege that the NFL has been intentionally denying disability benefits for those with both physical injuries and mental impairments.
The plaintiffs include Jason Alford, Daniel Loper, Willis McGahee, Michael McKenzie, Jamize Olawale, Alex Parsons, Eric Smith, Charles Sims, Joey Thomas and Lance Zeno.
Loper, Olawale, Thomas, and Zeno have each been signed to the Dallas Cowboys at some point during their NFL careers.
Ten retired NFL players filed a class-action lawsuit against the league’s benefits plan, board of trustees and Commissioner Roger Goodell, accusing them of “unscrupulous tactics” to wrongfully deny claims. https://t.co/Rko7lSrqi1
— NBC News (@NBCNews) February 10, 2023
THE LAWSUIT AGAINST THE NFL
The complaint was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. According to its contents, the players are “seeking redress for the wrongful denial of benefits, the denial of statutorily mandated full and fair review of benefits denials, violations of plan terms or governing regulations, and breaches of fiduciary duty.”
Several members of the group had their benefit applications denied multiple times. They claim this was due at least in part to conflicting reports from doctors whose denial rates are over 90 percent.
The lawsuit suggests the doctors who examined the plaintiffs were highly paid by the NFL. Allegedly, they purposefully downplayed the former players’ ailments in reports so that the league would be justified in denying their claims and avoiding payouts.
Supposedly, the doctors who were not paid as well were also more likely to accurately detect disabilities.
According to the lawsuit, in the period between March 31, 2019, and April 1, 2020 4.5% of players were found to be totally and permanently disabled by physicians paid more than $210,000. During that same period, however, 30% were found to be disabled by physicians paid $54,000-$60,000.
IN THE CASE OF ERIC SMITH
One specific situation involves Eric Smith who played for the Jets until 2012. He suffered 13 documented traumatic brain injuries. He was denied line of duty (LOD) benefits in 2013, appealed the decision, and was denied again a year later.
Smith reapplied for benefits in 2015 after being seen by a physician who was paid $34,268 and had found 20 LOD impairments among players. According to the lawsuit, after Smith was awarded benefits, that physician’s compensation from the board fell to $16,711.
In 2018, Smith applied for permanent and neurocognitive disability. He was repeatedly denied by physicians – some paid over $1 million. This was despite his “head, neck, and lumbar spine impairments” and “marked decreased shoulder range of motion, rotator cuff weakness, and moderate to severe shoulder arthritis,” according to the lawsuit.
Allegedly, when the plan and the board reviewed a players disability claim, they chose to only use the case summaries prepared by the plan’s law firm, the Groom Law Group, rather than the full medical records. Such a process would be a violation of Federal Law.
NFL Commissioner is listed by name as a defendant in the lawsuit. He is on the board of the NFL Player Disability and Neurocognitive Benefit Plan.
Goodell held a pre-Super Bowl news conference earlier this week, before the lawsuit was filed. During the news conference, he was asked about denial of benefits for some players.
“We have to obviously have a system to be able to identify who qualifies for those benefits and who doesn’t qualify for those benefits, and that’s done with union and management,” he said. “And the facts are that’s done independently with doctors who make a determination of whether… an individual qualifies under that program.”
“So you don’t want people to benefit from it that don’t qualify for it, because it takes away from people who do qualify for it. So you’re always going to have people who may think they qualify for it – doctors disagree, the joint board disagrees. That’s a way the system works, but I would tell you the benefits in the NFL are off the charts.”
According to Goodell, about $2.5 billion of the league’s $10 billion player compensation package this year is for benefits. Annual disability compensation may range from $65,000 a year to $265,000 a year. It is dependent on if the injury was sustained while performing activities for the league or not and how long ago the injury happened.
THIS ISN’T THE FIRST TIME
This is not the first time the NFL has been called out for unethical handling of their benefits for former players.
In March of 2020, there was a controversy over wording in the ratified CBA. After players had voted on and approved the agreement, wording in the document was changed. The wording was related to the league’s disability plan. It would have potentially affected thousands of former players.
Later in 2020, the NFL Players Association was met with legal challenges after attempting to reduce disability benefits to former players.
Relatively recently, in 2021, the NFL had to address their use of race-based dementia testing. Their practices made it difficult for Black retirees to qualify for awards in a NFL concussion case.
The NFLPA claims they currently have the “best benefits package in professional sports.” However, the current disability and neurocognitive benefit plan includes changes for applications submitted after 2020.
The lawsuit seeks to be given class action status. The plaintiffs are requesting removal of the six members of the board for “their repeated and substantial breaches of the fiduciary duty of loyalty to the Plan” and an unspecified amount of money as compensation.