BALTIMORE (CN) — As football fans across the country prepare for Super Bowl parties, 10 former players are suing the NFL's benefit plan for what they say are wrongful denials of disability benefits.
The class action filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, home of the league's benefit plan office, seeks to remove all members of the disability board, including chairman and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, for "egregious and repeated breaches of fiduciary duties."
"Plaintiffs seek to pull back the curtain on behalf of all similarly situated former NFL players, bringing many relevant factual and legal issues concerning the plan to light," the 86-page complaint states.
Former players Jason Alford, Willis McGahee, Daniel Loper, Michael McKenzie, Jamize Olawale, Alex Parsons, Eric Smith, Charles Sims, Joey Thomas and Lance Zeno represent the proposed class.
"Unfortunately, this is yet another example of the NFL’s betrayal of its players once we are no longer on the field and making them money,” said former seven-year NFL safety Smith in a press release. “Through this lawsuit, we are bringing these injustices to light and demanding the NFL fulfill its responsibilities to players rather than continue to try to dodge accountability every step of the way.”
The players accuse the board of "ever-shifting inconsistent and illogical interpretations of the terms of the plan," and say "reliance on conflicted advisors have resulted in a pattern of systematic bias against disabled NFL players— motivated by financial considerations to limit the payment of benefits to the very players whom the plan was designed to help."
In order to receive benefits, according to the complaint, players must undergo an excessively complicated process in which many are denied for arbitrary reasons. Over 1,000 players applied for benefits each year between 2014 and 2016, the lawsuit states.
The players specifically complain about the use of so-called neutral physicians appointed by the board to examine players who apply for benefits.
"The plan, however, does not contain other procedures to ensure that plan represented 'neutral physicians' are indeed impartial and unbiased," the lawsuit states. "The plan provides no other penalties for inaccurate or inadequate decision-making by plan-declared 'neutral physicians.'"
The board is made up of six members along with Goodell. Three are appointed through the NFL Players Association, while NFL team owners select the other three. Goodell is currently joined on the board by Dennis Curran, Belinda Lerner, Jacob Frank, Sam McCullum, Robert Smith and Jeff Van Note, all named as defendants in the suit.
Despite rule changes with player safety in mind, NFL players continue to suffer violent injuries, including those suffered this season by Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on the field last month after suffering cardiac arrest, and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was carted off the field with head and neck injuries last September.
Common injuries that derail pro football careers include disc herniations. From the 2000 season to the 2012 season, 275 disc herniations occurred in the spine of NFL players. Shoulder instability is also typical for players, with 403 such injuries documented in 355 players from 2012 to 2017.
In addition to in-season injuries, the NFL's style of play has long-term effects on retired players like those who filed the lawsuit. Over 36% of former players complain of suffering from degenerative joint disease. A Boston University study on the brains of deceased former players found that 92% suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
"Signs and symptoms of CTE include, but are not limited to, memory loss, attention and processing speed impairment, confusion, impaired judgment, visual spatial impairment, depression, language impairment, parkinsonism, suicidality, and progressive dementia," the complaint states. "These symptoms often manifest years or even decades after a player's last brain trauma."
Zeno played center for the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams between 1991 and 1996, and suffered numerous concussions over his playing career. A benefit board-appointed physician, Dr. Dean Delis, concluded that Zeno showed no evidence of mild acquired neurocognitive impairment. Zeno's test scores, however, had been described by other physicians as showing mild impairments.
The players claim that the board relies on physicians like Delis, who has authored or co-authored multiple publications that downplay the effects of traumatic brain injuries or attempt to shift those effects to other non-cognitive causes. Delis has received north of a million dollars for his work with the board, according to the complaint, and in a study of 66 players he evaluated, 92% were deemed not entitled to benefits.
"The board knows that, having collected more than $1.1 million from the plan, Dr. Delis benefits financially from doing repeat business with the board," the filing states. "It follows that the board knows that Dr. Delis has an incentive to provide it with reports that will increase the chances that the board will frequently return to him in the future."
The board's four highest-paid neutral physicians concluded that none of the 46 players that applied for total and permanent disability from April 2019 through March 2020 qualified.
McGahee, an 11-year NFL running back and two-time Pro Bowl selection for the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos, was denied total permanent disability benefits in 2016 and 2020. Dr. Jason King evaluated McGahee in 2020 and concluded that he did not qualify.
"Although noting that plaintiff McGahee suffered from 'clinically significant depression' and required frequent shifts of position due to pain, Dr. King opined that Mr. McGahee was not T & P [totally and permanently] disabled," the lawsuit states. "Dr. King gave little to no weight to Plaintiff McGahee's self-reported symptoms, including severe chronic pain, depression, and suicidal ideation."
The players claim the board failed to look at the totality of players' injuries and instead viewed each individually when reviewing an application for benefits.
"Defendants wrongfully denied benefits and abused their discretion when they unreasonably failed to consider that players may be T & P disabled from the cumulative impact and combined effects of all of a claimant's impairments," they claim.
The players are represented by attorneys with Seeger Weiss LLP; Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz, PLLC; Athlaw LLP; and Advocate Law Group PC. The firms released a joint statement Thursday announcing the suit.
“After years of putting their bodies and brains on the line with the NFL’s promise of assistance should they need it, these former players deserve far more than a sham process in which there is little to no chance of success,” they said. “It is shameful that an organization worth billions of dollars is depriving former players of their rightful benefits. We plan to right this wrong.”
Attorneys representing the benefits board did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
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