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Retired players take dispute to Congress

WASHINGTON (June 26, 2007) -- Aging NFL retirees told Congress 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 committee.

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 broken."

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.

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 thing."

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 1982.

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