Management, former players face off during congressional hearings

WASHINGTON -- Aging NFL retirees told Congress Tuesday that
playing professional football left them with broken bodies, brain
damage and empty bank accounts. Lawmakers said they may get
involved if a better pension and disability system isn't created.

Former NFL players told a sympathetic House Judiciary
subcommittee tales of multiple surgeries, dementia and
homelessness, all while trying to fight through the red tape of the
National Football League and the NFL Players Association's
disability system.

The league and the players association said pensions are
improving and there's no need for Congress to step in.

Curt Marsh, an Oakland Raider from 1981-87, described a leg
amputation, more than 30 surgeries and multiple doctor visits
before he was approved for disability payments. Brent Boyd, a
Minnesota Viking from 1980-86, talked about his bouts with
homelessness as a single dad and brain damage he blames on multiple
concussions from his football days.

The late Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame
Pittsburgh Steelers'
center who suffered from mental illness that was widely attributed
to head injuries, died homeless in 2002, his lawyer told the

The players from the '50s, '60s and '70s laid the groundwork for
the popularity of the NFL, a billion-dollar industry, and should be
treated better, lawmakers said.

"Perhaps there ought to be a legal solution," said Rep. Chris
Cannon, R-Utah.

But the NFL and the NFL Players Association told lawmakers that
pensions for older players are on the rise. Last week, they agreed
to allow any former player who qualified as disabled under the
Social Security system to be considered as disabled under the
NFL-NFLPA system.

"I don't think a law change is necessary," NFL Senior Vice
President Dennis Curran said. "I don't accept that the process is

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

The league says $126 million a year goes into pension and
post-career disability benefits for retired players and their
families. The accounts pay out $60 million a year to those players,
$20 million of it for disability payments.

It's right versus wrong. It's do the ethical thing or do the wrong thing. So far, they've chosen to do the wrong thing.

Mike Ditka

But only 317 out of more than 10,000 eligible players are
getting disability payments out of that fund, officials said.

"It's right versus wrong," said Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame
Coach and player for the Chicago Bears. "It's do the ethical thing
or do the wrong thing. So far, they've chosen to do the wrong

Lawmakers zeroed in on the fact that the players' union only
represents active players, not retired players. But the union and
the NFL owners decide who sits on the panels that decide whether
retired players get disability payments.

"We have a group that should be protected, but is not being
protected," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla.

"What is even more troubling is that through projects such as
NFL Films, the NFL continues to profit off those very same players
who are denied benefits," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.

NFL and NFLPA representatives noted that the benefits in the
disability and pension systems are set through collective
bargaining negotiations between the players and the owners.

"Many of the players who now complain about their pension did
not view pension benefits as a priority when they were playing, and
did not agree to make sacrifices in bargaining to improve either
their pensions or the pensions of those who came before them,"
said Douglas Ell, the lawyer for NFL's retirement plan.

In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, payments
from the pension fund were raised by 25 percent for players who
retired before 1982 and 10 percent for those who retired after