Damar Hamlin’s Story Shines A Light On Pro Football’s ‘Cruel’ Record On Disability Payments

The NFL — and its players union — have a long record of being stingy when it comes to compensation for former players who’ve hurt themselves during their careers.

Mike Cloud doesn’t remember walking off the football field in Minneapolis that Halloween Sunday in 2004 after a helmet-to-helmet hit. He doesn’t remember the trip home to New York. What’s unforgettable, however, is the six-year legal labyrinth the National Football League led him through after Cloud, a running back for three teams from 1999 to 2005, sued to collect disability pay for debilitating injuries after his playing days were over.

Last summer, a Texas district court judge ordered the NFL to pay Cloud $3.3 million. The NFL is appealing the decision “on the merits.” In June, the judge slammed the league and its retirement fund for “abuses” that were “part of a larger strategy engineered to ensure that former NFL players suffering from the devastating effects of severe head trauma are not awarded” proper benefits. She also found that the retirement plan’s board, which ruled on his application for compensation, submitted erroneous documents and failed to conduct a fair review — violations of federal law. Today, out of thousands of ex-players who’ve filed applications for benefits, the number who receive the top level of disability compensation of $265,000 a year, according to people familiar with the plan, is 37. “It’s betrayal,” Paul Secunda, an attorney at Milwaukee-based Walcheske & Luzi who represents players, told Forbes.

Former NFL players and their advocates are hoping that Damar Hamlin’s terrifying heart attack during a January 2 nationally televised game will help shine a light on how the league treats the vast majority of applications for disability pay. While Hamlin, whose recovery galvanized the nation, will be taken care of for the rest of his life, according to promises made by league officials, other grind-it-out, under-the-radar cogs like Cloud, who started seven games in seven years for the Chiefs, Patriots and Giants, are subject to the NFL’s protracted and expensive legal maneuverings that another injured player, Brent Boyd, called a policy of “delay, deny and hope we die” and what the Texas judge, Karen Gren Scholer, blasted as “far from pretty.”

One irony is that the NFL’s process is the result of a collective-bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. The players’ union agreed to this arrangement in 2020, when the last CBA was signed. Another irony is that the NFL is the wealthiest league in the world, with an estimated $20 billion in 2022 revenue and fresh deals totaling about $120 billion over the next ten years from Amazon, Google and broadcast networks. Even so, the league has been stingy about paying out disability claims. With all that money rolling in, Secunda told Forbes he thought the roadblocks the league placed in the path of players seeking compensation is “cruel.”

Part of the problem is how the compensation fund is set up. NFL teams make $9 billion available to be divided between player salaries and benefits. It’s a zero-sum game. The more that gets paid out in disability, the less there is available for salaries. Today, the NFL and NFLPA collectively pay roughly $22 million per month in disability to about 2,700 former players, people familiar with the league’s plan told Forbes. The number is rising because more players are making disability claims. The NFL declined to comment.

The NFL has come a long way in acknowledging the health risks faced by players, and has established and improved a policy of identifying and treating head injuries since the 1980s, when Boyd was an offensive lineman for the Vikings, and the 2000s, when Cloud played running back. Shamed by a 2007 congressional hearing and the angry pleas of former players with head injuries — and heartbreakingly anguished suicides — the NFL has followed a game-day concussion protocol since 2011. And though Hamlin’s injury was a heart issue and not a concussion, the quick response of medical professionals standing by at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium during the Buffalo Bills’ game against the Bengals has been credited with saving the 24-year-old’s life. But not only does the league make it difficult for ex-players to win compensation for injuries to body and mind, but in the 2020 collective-bargaining agreement, the NFL and the players union effectively reduced the amounts that would be paid to wounded warriors and made it even harder to claim them.

“What an NFL player will face is a long, drawn-out battle where it takes six years to finally receive the benefits that were owed all along.”

Attorney Terry Coleman

That’s because the league, which for years paid out disability based on whether an ex-player succeeded in persuading the U.S. government that his injuries were debilitating enough to qualify for payments from Social Security Disability Insurance, plans to abandon that standard on April 1, 2024. That move would make the NFL and its retirement plan the sole gatekeepers. In a class-action complaint, former players say that would violate an employment law, called ERISA for Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, and present a conflict of interest. Speaking with reporters last week, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith declined to comment on the disability policy or its process, citing privacy.

Most ex-players who apply for compensation are greeted by an army from the NFL’s legal department. “If our case is an example, what an NFL player will face is a long, drawn-out battle where it takes six years to finally receive the benefits that were owed all along,” Terry Coleman of San Francisco-based Pillsbury & Coleman, which represented former player Charles Dimry, told Forbes. “It was just a tremendous amount of documents and information.” Dimry, a defensive back for five teams from 1988 to 1999, was one of the luckier ones. He settled his case in 2022 for $1.2 million.

The NFL and NFLPA agreed to pay Hamlin’s salary of $825,000 this season, and if he needs more, a tearful Troy Vincent, an ex-player who’s now an executive vice president of the NFL, assured reporters on a conference call that Hamlin would receive it.

That still leaves the process for other players and former players in a kind of holding pattern that favors the league until next April, when player advocates say it will get worse for them.

“It’s not transparent the way it ought to be,” says Lorenzo Alexander, an ex-player and former member of the NFLPA executive committee who voted against the 2020 collective-bargaining agreement and who now works for the NFL. “I think the biggest thing we can learn from [Hamlin’s injury] is cleaning that up.”


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Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jabariyoung/2023/01/14/damar-hamlins-story-shines-a-light-on-pro-footballs-cruel-record-on-disability-payments/