By MARYCLAIRE DALE
Ten retired NFL players are accusing the league of lies, bad faith and flagrant violations of federal law in denying disability benefits in a potential class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in Baltimore.
The men said they left the game with lingering physical or cognitive injuries that make their daily lives difficult if not excruciating. They also said they are not alone.
“They’re a small fraction of the players who have been wronged by the NFL’s disability plan. These former players deserve far more from an organization worth billions of dollars than a sham process in which there’s no chance of success,” said lawyer Chris Seeger, who separately has been class counsel in the $1 billion settlement of NFL concussion claims.
The new lawsuit was filed in federal court in Baltimore, and names as defendants both NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL’s Disability Board. The suit comes as league officials gather in Phoenix for the Super Bowl on Sunday.
The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did the NFL Players Association.
Willis McGahee, a first-round pick in 2003 who spent 11 seasons in the NFL, said he has had more than a dozen surgeries for football injuries and often needs help getting out of bed. He is 41.
And Eric Smith, who spent seven seasons with the New York Jets, said he struggles to play with his young sons — and fears the dark moods.
“There were times I would blackout and wake up … and I’m bleeding, there are holes in the wall. My wife and kids are crying,” Smith, 39, said on a videoconference call that included McGahee and lawyers. “I went down a dark path. If I ever hurt one of them, in one of these cases, that’s probably the end. Like, I’m done.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the doctors who examine players for the league’s disability plan have a financial interest in denying the claims, as it makes them more likely to get future referrals from the program. One neuropsychologist who was paid more than $800,000 from the program examined a group of 29 former players and found none of them was disabled, according to the lawyers.
Seeger, who has worked closely with NFL lawyers on the concussion case for a decade, said the latest suit seeks to have the disability plan “fulfill its overdue legal responsibilities to players rather than continue to try to dodge accountability every step of the way.”
A successful claim can lead to payments between $65,000 to $265,000, but only 30 of the thousands filed to date have led to top awards, according to Sam Katz, one of several lawyers working with Seeger on the case.
The disability program grew out of the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement between the players and the union, and was hailed a way to help ailing former players. During the pandemic, players complained of delays in having their cases reviewed.
“I had a great run. My name has been out there. But I feel like it’s time to step up (for other players),” said Smith, who noted he had twice been knocked out during televised games. “We deserve to be taken care of at the end of the day.”
The other former players who signed on to the lawsuit are Jason Alford (three seasons), Daniel Loper (five seasons), Michael McKenzie (11 seasons), Jamize Olaware (eight seasons), Alex Parsons (one season), Charles Sims (four seasons), Joey Thomas (three seasons) and Lance Zeno (two seasons).
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