Under fire at hearing, NFLPA seeks help from Congress

WASHINGTON -- Under fire from injured retirees who say they
were denied sufficient benefits, the head of the National Football
League Players Association asked Congress on Tuesday for greater
authority to approve disability claims.

Gene Upshaw, director of the players association, said the union
currently is limited in what it can do for the scores of former
players who are battered and broken from years of playing the
violent sport.

At the same time, Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said
league pensions are improving.

"We have made great progress, and we are not finished," Upshaw
told a Senate committee. "Congress can help."

It is the first time the union has asked Congress for help with
the problem, which was the subject of a House hearing earlier this

Retired football players have been openly critical of the NFL
and the players' union over the amount of money that older retirees
get from a $1.1 billion fund set aside for disability and pensions.

Goodell defended the system, saying the NFL is boosting benefits
when many companies around the country are reducing them. But he
acknowledged that there have to be ways to improve.

"We recognize this is not a short-term problem," he said in
his testimony.

Several former players testified -- sometimes tearfully -- about
the injuries they now live with. Witnesses included Garrett
Webster, son of the late Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh
Steelers' center who suffered from mental illness that was widely
attributed to head injuries.

"I would give my life to never see another family end up like
mine," Webster said.

Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame coach and player for the Chicago
Bears who now is an analyst for ESPN, argued that the older players who built the league should be
treated better.

"Don't make proud men beg," he said. "Just let them live out
their lives with a little bit of respect."

Former Dallas Cowboys star Daryl Johnston and Bears' Hall of
Famer Gale Sayers also testified.

"We have no voice and we have no bargaining power," said
Johnston, whose career also ended in injury. "The money is there
to fix this problem."

The players' union is asking Congress to change federal law so
it has more power on the retirement board that reviews disability
claims. Under current law, the union can only name three retired
former players to the board. NFL owners appoint the other three

"Since the NFLPA has been criticized when applications are
denied -- even though a majority vote of the six trustees is
necessary to make a decision -- and since current players are
funding the system, it makes sense for the players to be the ones
making the disability decisions," Upshaw said.

The union is also asking Congress to tweak federal workers
compensation laws and eliminate some of the layers of bureaucracy
that make it harder for claims to be honored.

Injured player Dave Pear, who won a Super Bowl with the Oakland
Raiders in 1981, says he is skeptical of the proposal by the
players union.

"All they've delivered so far are broken promises," Pear said.

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat who led the hearing
before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee,
said his preference is that Congress not legislate on the issue but
stay involved through oversight.

Still, he said, "something's not working the way it should

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he is prepared to offer
legislation, however, if the problem is not resolved soon.

"It seems to me the league is dropping the ball here," he

The hearing comes a little more than a week after Buffalo Bills
tight end Kevin Everett was seriously injured in the team's season
opener. Everett arrived at the hospital paralyzed from his neck
down, and doctors feared he would never walk again.

But Everett is now showing movement in his hands and legs, and
doctors say it is possible he will lead a normal life.