NFL disability program gets needed boost


The Northwest Herald

Wendell Davis was flourishing as a Bears wide receiver when a sudden injury struck down his career.

The culprit was the infamous artificial turf at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Davis blew out both knees while running a pass pattern and never played another NFL game.

If the injury had to occur, it came at a good time. It happened in 1993, just as the NFL Players' Association was increasing its efforts to compensate players whose careers ended because of injury.

"(That) was critical," Davis said. "You're talking about a devastating moment in your life. You need all the support you can get, and knowing your union is behind you means a lot."

Constantly evolving disability policies are a tricky and consuming part of the business for many league and union executives in an industry with an average career span of 3 1/2 years.

Citing an independent study by researchers at Ball State University, NFLPA executives say 65 percent of all players since 1970 have sustained an injury that caused them to miss eight or more games. Before 1970, the figure was only 36 percent.

The disability issue was crystallized in 1978, when Raiders cornerback Jack Tatum broke Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley's neck with a crushing hit in a preseason game. The play left the 26-year-old Stingley a quadriplegic.

The injury had far-reaching consequences. In fact, the compensation for active players who sustain a "total and permanent" disability commonly is referred to as the "Stingley benefit."

"It really brought the issue to the forefront because it was a dramatic, televised incident that got everybody's attention," NFLPA director of benefits Michele Yaras-Davis said. "That's what got us started looking at total and permanent active benefits.

"Our thought is, whenever we negotiate a (collective bargaining) contract for our players, let's go back and try to help the retired players, too. We want the Stingley benefit to continue to grow."

Starting in 1993, when Davis went down, players with disabling conditions stemming from their time on the field were covered by the league's pension plan. The NFLPA made the new clause a key part of that year's groundbreaking CBA, which also established unrestricted free agency for the first time.

Former Oakland center Jim Otto is among those reaping the benefits of the plan. He retired in 1975 after 16 seasons that resulted in dozens of major surgeries and ultimately left him with degenerative arthritis in his knees, hips and back.

"My body was a wreck for a number of years after I got out of the league," Otto said. "Knee surgeries, back surgeries, you name it, plus I had more internal (injuries) as well. I couldn't sit up straight for any length of time, much less have the strength to do anything physically demanding."

Otto receives $110,000 per year for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Stingley, who was an active player at the time of his injury, gets $235,000 annually for life. Before 1993, players such as Otto were receiving only $1,000 per month, while Stingley was taking in no more than $48,000 per year.

In all, the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan holds more than $500 million for monthly pension and disability payments to more than 3,000 former players.

NFL owners contribute annually to a plan based on the terms of the existing CBA. After retired players complained the NFLPA emphasized salaries and benefits for active players over those for retired players, the union changed its stance in negotiations around 1993.

With the consent of its active membership, the NFLPA started lowering its demands regarding per-diem payouts and other benefits in return for more generous payouts to the pension and disability plan.

"They let us know how they felt, and of course we listened," Yaras-Davis said. "Both we (the NFLPA) and the league owe them so much."

A key part of the revamped disability plan is its equability. Payouts do not depend on how much money a player made while he was active.

"To be honest," Yaras-Davis said, "some guys who played (before the recent salary explosion) make more in disability than they did in salary."

The plan also funnels more money into disability payments than into pension. With most companies, Yaras-Davis said, the opposite is true.

The NFLPA's reasoning in that regard was simple. Players are too apt to sustain serious injuries that inhibit their ability to earn a living after they retire.

"You know there's a risk when you embark on this career," said Otto, who also is battling prostate cancer. "Obviously, if you thought you'd be up a creek without a paddle (without financial support), you might not do it because you have family to think about."

If Otto represents the severe toll the NFL can take on a player, former Jets wide receiver Al Toon is a milder yet still important case.

Toon had just signed a three-year, $4.2 million contract when he had to retire because of recurring concussions in 1992.

"I had short-term memory loss and trouble with my balance," Toon said. "I had trouble walking, taking showers and helping take care of my (infant) daughter. At that point, I knew I had to get out (of football)."

He was 29 at the time.

Despite the concussions, Toon was physically able to pursue another career. As such, he received what the union calls "line-of-duty" disability. Unlike the "total and permanent" disability, this payment depends on a player's salary.

When Toon went out, the Jets were bound to pay him the remainder of his $1.375 million salary for 1992. The rest of his contract, like that of almost every NFL player, was non-guaranteed.

This temporary disability pay started at $600 a month in 1993, the first year after Toon left the game. It increased to $1,000 a month for part of 1994, then $1,675 per month from mid-1994 through its expiration in 1997.

Toon, who lives near Madison, Wis., appreciated the policy but did not need it. He earned his real-estate license and has made various sound investments using the money he saved throughout his career.

He knows others in his position might not have been so fortunate.

"You hear about guys like Mike Webster," said Toon, referring to the former Pittsburgh Steelers center who recently died at 50. Webster was destitute and in poor health when he passed.

"Obviously, he was (eligible for) benefits and that wasn't enough to help him," Toon said. "If he could have gotten more (earlier), would it have been enough? Probably not, there's only so much (the union) can do for a guy."

The NFLPA never will stop seeking the perfect, all-encompassing policy.

"For any union, the goal is to take care of its membership," said safety Larry Whigham, the Bears' player representative. "We'll always look to improve how we do that."

* Hut covers pro football for the Northwest Herald.

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