WASHINGTON — Responding to often-emotional testimony, several U.S. senators Tuesday threatened to step in and fix the NFL’s pension and medical disability program if league and players’ union officials don’t quickly improve the system — one that retirees increasingly describe as dysfunctional.
The possibility of congressional oversight came during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in which NFL Players Assn. Executive Director Gene Upshaw agreed there are problems and asked Congress to change federal law that requires the plan to be jointly operated by the league and union, suggesting the structure is partly to blame.
The two-hour session also offered a grim look at the final days of now-deceased former Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster, as seen through the eyes of his son.
Garrett Webster said that his father, who died at age 50 in the middle of a bitter legal battle with the NFL and NFLPA over a medical disability benefit, had been reduced to begging for food outside of restaurants and living in a rat-infested motel.
Webster, now 23, told of a phone call he received a decade ago during which his father — by then in constant pain — threatened suicide.
Mike Webster, who played for 17 seasons and was easily elected to the Hall of Fame, blamed his severe physical and mental problems on the battering his body and brain absorbed while playing football.
“I have lived through things I would not wish on my worst enemy,” Webster told committee members, begging them to “expose the deceptions in that system that will rob other children of fathers, mothers of sons, and wives of husbands if it is allowed to continue.”
Since last year, a growing number of former NFL players, some of whom testified Tuesday, have grown increasingly agitated over the plight of men who made the game what it is today, but who struggle with financial and medical problems that some blame on an inadequate retirement plan.
Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, both of whom skipped a pair of House subcommittee hearings on the same divisive issues, on Tuesday defended professional football’s retirement programs yet acknowledged the system isn’t perfect.
Goodell testified that recent rule changes and other improvements being contemplated will reduce paperwork and make the disability application process less onerous for aging NFL retirees. The commissioner also said that “we have more work to do. . . . The men who played professional football decades ago deserve our respect and recognition, and their contributions to our game must never be overlooked.”
Upshaw, who said he grows “distressed when I hear about any former player who is hurting and in need,” testified that “the system can be improved, and Commissioner Goodell and I are determined to simplify and expedite the processing of claims.”
Upshaw then petitioned Congress to change federal law and regulations that require the league’s pension and disability fund to be jointly administered by the union and league, each of which have equal representation on the boards that review disability applications.
“Since the NFLPA has been criticized when applications are denied . . . it makes sense for the players to be the ones making the disability decisions,” Upshaw said, suggesting that the structure bogs down the process.
However, since the start of the year, the league and the union have been under fire. And it was unclear Tuesday whether such a change would get very far in Congress because it would mean amending a law that governs a number of similar union- and company-administered retirement systems.
Goodell, however, undercut the need for such a change, testifying that league and union board members “seldom” split their votes down the middle. Most decisions on disability claims, he said, are unanimous.
Several legislators — including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose husband played in the NFL — made it clear they are sympathetic to the plight of NFL retirees whose bodies and minds have begun to show the effects of constant battering during their playing days.
“The NFL, we believe, has failed,” said Waters, who told of her lengthy but unsuccessful battle to help former NFL defensive back Jim Shorter qualify for disability benefits.
“Jim Shorter died a horrible death,” Waters told the committee. “The system is designed, in my belief, to refuse benefits for the very players who needed them most.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she grew aware of the health and medical challenges facing NFL retirees while observing Fred Arbanas, a five-time Pro Bowler who is now a Kansas City businessman.
“I’ve watched his body fall apart,” McCaskill said.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chaired the panel, voiced concern over a wealthy league that seems unwilling to fix a system that so many former players describe as broken.
“Something is not working the way it should be,” he said.
Dorgan suggested that the threat of congressional oversight might be the spark needed to push the league and union into action — just as Major League Baseball seemed content to ignore growing concern over the abuse of performance enhancing drugs until Congress held hearings.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) agreed, saying that something is amiss in a league where only about 300 players receive medical disability payments but “nearly half of all players retire because of injury, 60% of players suffer a concussion and at least one quarter suffer multiple concussions.”
Kerry later issued a statement that underscored his willingness to forge a congressional solution: “I am prepared to introduce legislation to create an oversight commission to look at the actions of the retirement board. They must clean it up, or we will.”
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s hearing, former Minnesota Vikings player Brent Boyd urged fellow retirees to swamp Dorgan’s office with letters that described their individual cases. A Dorgan spokesman said that the letters “weren’t form letters, they were individually written by former players who wanted to tell their stories.”
The letters are part of an increasingly bitter exchange between former players and the NFLPA. At the two previous House hearings, Boyd was joined by other NFL retirees — including Hall of Fame member Mike Ditka — in alleging mismanagement by those running the union- and league-governed pension and disability fund.
During those House hearings, the stories offered by disgruntled players went largely unchallenged. But early on Tuesday, the NFLPA’s Washington-based public relations firm, distributed a 25-page document that included “facts about former players with public controversies over disability issues.” The union included its take on how the medical disability system dealt with several former players who testified Tuesday.
Ditka, who has been among the most vocal critics of the retirement fund, used Tuesday’s fact-finding hearing to urge Goodell and Upshaw, who sat with him at the witness table, to “do the right thing.”
Former players, including Bears running back Gale Sayers and former Dallas Cowboys star Daryl Johnston, used the hearing to describe a system that many retirees view as tilted toward team owners and union officials who seem to be more interested in building a cache than helping needy NFL retirees.
“We have no voice and we have no bargaining power,” said Johnston, whose career was cut short by a neck injury. “The money is there to fix this problem.”
Who would pay that bigger bill, however, is up in the air.
Upshaw on Tuesday said each player already contributes the equivalent of $82,000 that goes into the retirement fund.
But Goodell placed any future financial obligation on the union because it already lays claim to 60% of league revenue.
“Owners are responsibly addressing these concerns but they are simply not in a position to absorb significant . . . costs,” Goodell said.