Former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Brent Boyd, who played in the NFL from 1980 to 1986, says he suffered a series of concussions during his playing career, and when he attempted to navigate the NFL's disability program, it became so confusing and defeating he coined a phrase about the experience.
In each of his three Congressional appearances examining the impact of football, Boyd, who testified in 2007 that numerous concussions left him with headaches, depression, fatigue and dizziness, summed up the NFL's disability program this way:
"Delay, deny and hope we die."
Decades later, the NFL's disability program is again coming under intense scrutiny, and while players say it's gotten much more efficient since Boyd's days, it remains one of the most contentious programs in the NFL.
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The program has a history of benefit reductions, denial of benefits and forcing players to launch legal challenges to get benefits to which they feel they were entitled.
The sister of Phillip Adams, a cornerback who played in the NFL between 2010 and 2015, and is alleged to have shot to death five people on Wednesday before killing himself, said Adams had mental health issues and struggled to get treatment through the league's disability program.
“I know he had been applying for disability and he said they were making it hard for him,’’ Lauren Adams said to USA TODAY Sports. “And towards the end he felt like they were trying to basically stiff him on money.
“He felt like they were just trying to nickel and dime him. I think he got upset about that and that’s kind of where it started, with him kind of feeling like the whole world was against him."
It should be made clear there's no proof that any alleged frustrations with the NFL's disability program led to Adams' horrific act. Players in the past have publicly expressed frustration with the system and none of them did what Adams is alleged to have done.
It's also fair to say the NFL and NFL Players Association should investigate the claim of Adams' sister. We don't know if there's a connection, but this needs to be explored. An NFLPA spokesman declined to comment.
It should also be noted that the NFLPA has processes in place should a player be denied benefits that help the player, it says. One of those mechanisms is The Trust which aids players in a number of ways.
The NFLPA says no player is ever abandoned.
However, the NFL's disability program has for years come under attack by current and former players for denying or reducing benefits the players felt they should have received.
While the process is immensely complicated, essentially players are eligible to receive disability payments up to $138,000 a year from the league if they are deemed unable to work due to injuries sustained while playing in the NFL.
One of the most high-profile cases of players battling the NFL over disability payments was Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who won four Super Bowls. He became oft-cited example of how the program denied players clearly impacted by football the benefits they deserved.
Webster took the NFL to court after he was given only partial disability payments. Seven years after filing that claim a federal appeals court in 2006 ruled Webster was completely and permanently disabled due to brain injuries sustained while in the NFL. The ruling came four years after Webster died of a heart attack at the age of 50.
“It seemed like we battled everyone — the NFL, even the players’ union, which should be the first ones to support our case,” his son, Garrett Webster, told the New York Times in 2006. “There is a sadness that my dad’s not here to celebrate this, but there is also a happiness that other people’s voices can be heard, not just NFL players but regular people with brain injuries, construction workers, police officers, firefighters, so when things happen to them, people can recognize the signs of a brain injury.”
Bob Fitzsimmons, one of the lawyers who represented Webster, told the Times: “This was Mike Webster’s personal battle that he would not give up on, and he was right. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the end, but I’m most happy for him and I’m sure he’s appreciating the victory.”
Fast forward to last year and again the NFL's disability system was criticized by players and others. The Times reported that payments to disabled players were scheduled to be reduced starting on January 1 by the value of any Social Security benefits, at least $2,000 a month.
After outrage from current and former players, as well as women supporters of the players, the union said it would keep the benefits structure for three more years.
The way professional football handles its post-career benefits differs from some of its sports counterparts.
In the 2017 collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, health and pension benefits were increased for retired players.
The two sides made it a priority making the NBA the first pro sports league to offer health insurance to retired players.
After three years of service, players have access to health insurance, and after 10 years, they also can receive health care coverage for their spouse and children. The NBA and NBPA agreed to share the increased costs equally, including raises in pensions.
It's a dramatically different approach, in many ways, from the historically delaying and denying NFL program.
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