Analysis

Hamlin Injury Stirs up NFL Player Benefits Misinformation Again

The traumatic events of Monday night – when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and was administered CPR on the field before being taken by ambulance to a local Cincinnati hospital – brought me back to the summer of 2001.

That was my first summer out of pro football, my first away from a college or NFL training camp in a dozen years. Korey Stringer, a teammate of mine at Ohio State and with the Minnesota Vikings, was in his second day of camp with the Vikings in Mankato. The heat index had risen to 110 degrees that day and Stringer, a 350-pound tackle, suffered heat stroke. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital with a body temperature of 108 degrees.

Unconscious from the time he was admitted, he died in the middle of the night from organ failure.

Then seeing Damar Monday night, on the field fighting for his life, brought up things on a personal side for me. Watching that was powerful and emotional for me.

I remembered seeing all my teammates – Randy Moss, Cris Carter – struggling and trying to deal with Korey’s death in 2001, and those memories flooded back Monday night. I couldn’t imagine how Randy and Cris and all those guys just went back to practice, let alone somebody seeing a teammate receiving CPR in a game and then going back to play. 

Angry at Players’ Union as Rookie

I have worked in some capacity for the NFL Players Association since 1994, my second year in the league. When I was a rookie with the Vikings in 1993, tight end Steve Jordan was our team rep and he was talking to us, in particular to me and fellow rookie Gino Torretta. Steve was trying to allay our fears for what was happening in 1993 – the first year of unfettered free agency in the NFL and a rookie salary cap. 

Because of the cap, we were the first rookie class to get paid less money than the rookies the year before. And Steve kept trying to educate us, saying, ‘Oh, well, the union’s really trying to work for the players and fight for the players.’ 

I wasn’t having it. And I wanted to become a player rep. 

The next year, in 1994, Jack Del Rio became the player rep and I became the assistant player rep. We went to Hawaii to our first NFLPA meeting with the express purpose to get executive director Gene Upshaw fired because of all of the things we believed about Gene. 

But I could not have been more wrong about the union and about Gene and about all the things the union stands for.

The reason the 1993 rookies received less money than the rookies the year before had to do with a group of players from the early ’70s when NFL pensions were instituted. And this is the irony: So many of the players you’ve heard talking on national TV about their dissatisfaction and their anger toward the NFLPA and the pension plan – it was Gene who fixed the problem.

We went to Hawaii to our first NFLPA meeting with the express purpose to get executive director Gene Upshaw fired because of all of the things we believed about Gene. But I could not have been more wrong about the union and about Gene and about all the things the union stands for.

When the pension plan was started, the union decided to exclude an entire class of players. They’re called the “Pre-59ers” – players whose careers ended before 1959. The union guys basically decided to leave the Pre-59ers out of the plan so they could have higher pensions. Those people on TV talking now about how the current union is corrupt and doesn’t care about former players – it was those players back then who decided they didn’t even want those pre-59ers to have a pension.

In 1993, because of the Reggie White settlement that led to free agency, Upshaw decided to do the right thing by including the Pre-59ers, many posthumously. The survivors and widows were all of a sudden receiving pensions for the very first time.

And every single time there’s been a new CBA since 1993, the union has decided to go back and retroactively increase benefits for the former players. 

That’s just the beginning. 

NFL Pension and Disability Board

Around 2010, after serving as a player rep and executive committee member, I was put on to the NFL Pension and Disability Board. Again, having heard so many things about this board – about how corrupt and evil it was – it couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s sometimes easier to be angry than to seek the truth.

Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson was part of that board when I joined, and Dave could not have been more committed to trying to help former players. And the simple fact is, some players are disabled, some players aren’t disabled, but almost every single one of them that gets turned down for disability gets angry. They get angry at the union. They get angry at the NFL. They get angry at the board members. They need to lash out at someone or something.

Many in the national media – some I’ve worked for – have distorted these stories. Even though some of these outlets knew I worked with the union and had the facts straight, they still wouldn’t let me correct the misinformation.

And time and time again, the same stories – the lies – were repeated over and over again. Remember Mike Webster?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame center was constantly used as an example to try and prove that the Pension and Disability Board was evil. Webster was diagnosed with brain damage in 1999 from what doctors said were too many hits to the head while playing football. He was also separated from his family and homeless for a time after his retirement in 1990.

Many in the national media – some I’ve worked for – have distorted these stories. Even though some of these outlets knew I worked with the union and had the facts straight, they still wouldn’t let me correct the misinformation.

There were all of these terrible stories and the national media ran with them. But Webster is actually an example of the NFL Pension and Disability Board working at its best. The total and permanent benefit was created for guys like him. Upshaw and Miki Yaras-Davis, who is the lead benefits liaison for the NFLPA, created this benefit and actively sought out Webster because the union wanted him on the benefit. And he was put on it almost immediately, receiving at that time $8,000 per month. 

The main question in the case of Mike Webster was when he became totally and permanently disabled. Because if a player is injured within six months to a year and totally and permanently disabled after receiving an injury, then he receives what’s called “active football” – the highest class of total and permanent benefits.

But if a player is deemed to be totally and permanently disabled after that 12-month window, then he gets put on what’s called “inactive football.” But it could be for any reason, like if somebody is riding his bike 10 years after leaving the game and is injured; it doesn’t have to be football-related. They can be put in this category of the total and permanent disability benefit. It’s unprecedented in sports to have a benefit like this.

For the inactive list, it has to be a player who’s vested, so having two years and three games on a roster meets that requirement. But the active benefit, it could be a player’s first day in the league; if they are permanently and totally disabled from football activities, they’re getting $265,000 a year.

Hamlin Will Be Taken Care of

Hopefully this isn’t the case, but if tomorrow Damar Hamlin, who is at the end of his second NFL season, is deemed totally and permanently disabled, it doesn’t matter that he’s not vested as an NFL player for the purposes of getting total and permanent disability. “Active football” total and permanent disability is only if a player is totally and permanently disabled while playing NFL football. It has absolutely nothing to do with how long he’s been in the league.

Then there’s line-of-duty benefits, based on a rating system that could determine if a combination of injuries has led to, say, 15-25 percent disablement. So for a combination of bad shoulders and bad knees, that player’s going to receive money for a period of time. But that’s not money they’ll be receiving for the rest of their life because they haven’t been deemed to be totally and permanently disabled.

Those are the basic categories. 

The NFL’s benefits package is unprecedented and unique, as far as I know, in the United States workforce. Yet because of the negativity and false narratives that have been propagated by so many ignorant people, the public really believes it’s the worst in sports when it’s actually the best.

And in 2020, there was another benefit – the Gene Upshaw Health Retirement Account – that was added for all players who were vested going back throughout league history. They were given at least $25,000 into their accounts. And for current players, they get $35,000 annually for each year added to that account.

So to say that players are on their own after five years is just false, because players have that health retirement account or health reimbursement account. They can get reimbursed for whatever is not covered, whether it’s their insurance or their spouse’s, or they pay premiums for insurance themselves.

Unprecedented Benefits Package

The NFL’s benefits package is unique, as far as I know, in the United States workforce. Yet because of the negativity and false narratives that have been propagated by so many ignorant people, the public really believes it’s the worst in sports when it’s actually the best.

And the NFL Pension and Disability Plan – jointly administered by the NFL and NFLPA – pays out more than $200 million a year to disabled players.

And I hear all the different slogans that players who have been turned down for disability say. I hear all that stuff, including: “Delay, deny until they die”. I get it. You’re angry. All of these people are angry that they didn’t get the benefit. And so they need to lash out. 

And us players and former players have equal representation, we have equal voice in the way these disability cases are decided. For people to say that it’s the big, bad NFL vs. players, they just don’t know what they’re talking about. 

A player may say he is disabled, but he needs a legal definition in which a certified physician has said that player is totally and permanently disabled. It’s no different than trying to apply for Social Security disability. A doctor has to deem that individual to be totally and permanently disabled. We can’t subjectively decide on our own that somebody’s disabled or somebody isn’t disabled. If that doctor says that player isn’t totally and permanently disabled, then we can’t just on our own decide we’re going to give the benefits anyway, because it sets a precedent.

There are a lot of players who have been denied in the past for the very same reason. So you can’t just turn around and have a different set of rules for somebody else. 

People who have been granted disability, who are happy with the way that the system worked, they don’t have a reason to go to the media and say, “Hey, the NFLPA approved my claim.” The only people you hear from, the people that go to the media, are the ones that were refused.

But remember that causation doesn’t matter if you’re a vested player. It doesn’t matter how you become totally and permanently disabled. It doesn’t matter now if you are totally and permanently disabled within 15 years after leaving the game — you’re going to be on some sort of total and permanent disability plan. 

Totally and permanently disabled doesn’t mean you can’t play football anymore. Total and permanently disabled means you are unable to participate or engage in any meaningful employment at least for a period of 12 months to the rest of your life.

Remember this, too: People who have been granted disability, who are happy with the way that the system worked, they don’t have a reason to go to the media and say, “Hey, the NFLPA approved my claim.” The only people you hear from, the people that go to the media, are the ones that were refused. And there are a lot of people on this benefit that don’t want other people to know, quite frankly. 

If for some reason, again, God forbid, Damar is not going to be playing anymore, he’s going to be deemed to be totally and permanently disabled. If that’s the case, he will qualify for “active football” total and permanent – the highest category of benefits in our disability plan. It’s $265,000 a year for life. And there’s no question he would qualify for it. 

Robert Smith is a former NFL running back for the Minnesota Vikings and a two-time Pro Bowler. His career with the Vikings earned him a spot on the 50 Greatest Vikings list. Follow him on Twitter at @Robert26Smith.

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