NFL adopting Social Security guidelines for disability

In an effort to streamline the often arduous process by which former players collect disability funds, the NFL and the NFL Players Association have agreed to adopt Social Security Administration standards for determining qualification for such benefits.

Under the new agreement, first reported by the Philadelphia Daily News and confirmed for ESPN.com on Thursday by officials from both parties, any retired player who qualifies for a Social Security disability benefit will automatically be approved for NFL disability as well.

That is a dramatic departure from the previous process, which often forced retired players to travel hundreds of miles, and at their own expense, to meet with doctors who did not treat them during their career and were unfamiliar with their cases.

The change comes in advance of a congressional subcommittee hearing Tuesday over the NFL's pension and disability programs.

"It's long and involved and there definitely is a lot of red tape," NFLPA president Troy Vincent, a 15-year veteran defensive back, said earlier this week. "Some guys don't understand it, and even for the ones who do, it's a real [chore]. I'm sure some [retired players] just get to the point where they figure it's not worth the time you've got to put into it. They just get so frustrated, they kind of give up."

The NFLPA has come under fire in recent days for what critics have charged is negligence in tending to the needs of retired players with injuries. According to league figures, only 284 former NFL players received disability payments in 2006, totaling $20 million.

Critics have used those seemingly low numbers as ammunition in their battle with the union, and more specifically, with executive director Gene Upshaw. But many who have studied the problem have concluded it was the process itself -- and the number of hoops through which players were forced to jump in an attempt to qualify for any disability payments -- that was the program's most notable shortcoming.

"[Players] have complained there were just so many hurdles, and it was tough to navigate through the system," 11-year veteran tight end Ernie Conwell said.

The disability application process often took two or three years before some players' cases were resolved. And many times, the determinations were not favorable for the players. The hope is that the change to the Social Security Administration standards will make it easier for former players to qualify for disability money.

"We're looking at ways in which people who need help can get help faster," commissioner Roger Goodell told the Daily News. "You have to have some standards. You have to have some kind of process to make sure you're being responsible. ... If somebody is disabled enough [to qualify] for Social Security [disability], they should be disabled under our guidelines. We've agreed to that."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.