N.F.L. Players Say They Were Shortchanged on Disability Benefits

Ten former N.F.L. players sued Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s disability plan and its board members on Thursday, accusing them of systematically denying benefits to the players by lying about and misinterpreting the results of their medical examinations and the plan’s guidelines.

The class action lawsuit, filed in federal court in Maryland, where the N.F.L. Player Retirement Plan has its office, said that purportedly neutral doctors hired by the plan to evaluate the players’ injuries were rewarded with more cases if they denied more claims, all in an effort “to limit the payment of benefits to the very Players whom the Plan was designed to help.”

At the same time the six board members — three representing the N.F.L. and three representing the players’ union — claimed that they reviewed medical records to assess cases but often did not, according to the lawsuit.

“I’m trying to look out for all the other guys that have gone through this and gotten the short end of the stick with these evaluations,” said Eric Smith, a defensive back for the Jets for seven seasons and one of the 10 players who filed the suit.

The lawsuit seeks to have all players who have been denied benefits reassessed and made whole, and for penalties to be assessed against the disability plan and its board members for breaching their fiduciary responsibility to the players and the plan. The players also want the board members to be removed and the plan’s rules to be more strictly enforced.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a regular season that was in some ways was defined by shocking injuries to players. Damar Hamlin, a Buffalo Bills defensive back, went into cardiac arrest during a game and was on a breathing tube for several days. Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered two concussions and absorbed a third head hit, early in the season, which prompted the league and players’ union to revise their protocols for evaluating concussions.

The high-profile injuries prompted a re-examination within the league and widely among fans of the brutality of the game as well as the measures designed to minimize injuries.

The lawsuit filed by the 10 former players, including running back Willis McGahee and the 11-year cornerback Mike McKenzie, highlighted the resources available to retired players who have for decades complained that they have been unfairly denied collectively bargained benefits.

Some players who have had their total and permanent disability claims approved have sued the plan because they believed they were shorted out of thousands of dollars a month. According to another court filing cited in the suit, only 30 out of thousands of former players received the highest benefits worth $265,000 per year. The lowest tier of the plan awards $65,000 per year.

The league and union have noted that the benefits available to retired players have been expanded in collective bargaining agreements over the years and now include neurocognitive benefits, enhanced pensions and five years of health insurance.

At a news conference in Glendale, Ariz., on Wednesday, a day before the lawsuit was filed, Goodell, the nonvoting chairman of the disability board, echoed the position of the league and the union that player claims were evaluated independently. It was important to properly avoid mistakes in processing claims, he said, “because it takes away from people who do qualify.”

“You’re always going to have people who may think they qualify for it,” Goodell added. “But I would tell you, the benefits in the N.F.L. are off the charts.”

The N.F.L. and the players’ association did not immediately comment Thursday morning after the lawsuit was filed.

According to the lawsuit, the issue is not the benefits available to players, but the roadblocks to receiving them. The suit includes information about hundreds of cases handled by the lawyers representing the 10 plaintiffs. Collectively, they say the results show that doctors had conflicts of interest: Doctors who had been paid more money by the plan also had the highest denial rates, according to the lawsuit.

Doctors who approved a higher percentage of players claims made far less, the lawsuit said.

The implication is that the doctors with high denial rates received more cases to evaluate. But the filings do not include a full accounting of all the disability cases handled under the plan.

One neuropsychologist hired by the retirement plan and who examined Lance Zeno, a former offensive lineman and one of the plaintiffs, received at least $1,105,120 in compensation yet rejected more than 90 percent of the applicants he saw.

When McKenzie, who played for the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, applied for disability benefits in 2018, he was evaluated by an orthopedist hired by the plan who denied every one of the 17 players he saw, according to the lawsuit.

Smith, who retired in 2013, has damaged knees and shoulders, and has been unable to work. When he applied for disability benefits in 2018, he was told to fly from his home in New Jersey to see a doctor in North Carolina who, he said, spent 10 minutes evaluating him. The doctor did not include in his report Smith’s “decreased shoulder range of motion, rotator cuff weakness, and moderate to severe shoulder arthritis” and did not recognize Smith’s head, neck, and spinal damage.

The doctor was paid at least $1,811,566 by the retirement plan and rejected all seven of the players he evaluated, the lawsuit said.

The low approval rates have led Smith to question whether the N.F.L. is being sincere about offering benefits to retired players.

“They portrayed this image like, ‘we care about the players, we’re doing all this stuff for player safety,’” Smith said. “And then as soon as you’re not on the roster making them any money playing out on the field, they’re like, ‘OK, we’ll give you five years of insurance, now go leave us alone.’”

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