NFLPA set to rebut claims

Union to dispute retirees' accounts on its Web site

Sun Exclusive

September 27, 2007|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN REPORTER

Washington -- NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw says that some retired players' accounts of being rejected for disability benefits are rife with inaccuracies and that the union will begin a new effort today to defend itself.

The union will announce a new Web page today linked to its home site,, titled "The NFLPA Truth Squad: Facts vs. Fiction," according to a document obtained by The Sun.

"What we've decided to do is deal with all these blogs and inaccuracies that are out there," Upshaw said. "We will not discuss anyone's personal issues unless they bring it up first."

Upshaw and his advisers say some former players exaggerated claims, omitted facts and engaged in "character assassination" in statements to Congress or the media.

He cited Brian DeMarco, 35, as an example. Upshaw said the former Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals offensive lineman, who says he has rods and screws in his back and can barely walk, appeared at an emotional news conference here in June but didn't tell the media that he never completed his benefits applications.

"Once he decided to go out there, I had to expose him," Upshaw said.

DeMarco said yesterday that he did complete disability applications - the union asserts it sent him five by registered mail - and doesn't know what happened to them.

"Is [Upshaw] saying I'm too stupid to fill out an application and put a stamp on it?" DeMarco said. "I don't know what to say, because it hurts too bad and you want to believe they are there to help you."

DeMarco and other retired players said the union's campaign, to be announced today in a news release, appeared insensitive.

Said Brent Boyd, 50, a former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who recently told a Senate committee he has lingering problems from a series of concussions in his playing days: "They're trying to discredit us just for their own greed and their own egos after the hell we've been through."

Upshaw said he didn't choose to respond to specific retired players' allegations until some began using words like "corrupt" and "fraudulent" to describe a disability system he has worked to improve.

`Rigged' process

On Sept. 18, Boyd told the Senate Commerce Committee: "The current process is so corrupted, so rigged against disabled players, and is done in medieval secrecy."

Upshaw said: "There are probably more inaccuracies out there than accuracies. There are literally thousands [of former players] we've helped, and it's been a good experience for them."

The Web site begins: "This page is dedicated to the truth. The NFLPA will do its best to correct serious misstatements of fact - from whatever source - including misleading omissions of fact about the work we do on behalf of all players - past, present and future." The Web site also will provide links to pertinent documents such as court cases or medical reports.

The union faces a delicate balancing act, said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.

"There are sensitivities around every corner on this. When it devolves to finger-pointing - one ballplayer saying something and the union getting involved - it's just going to be a mess," Carter said. "I don't know if there are going to be any winners in this at all."

The retirees' complaints became news when such prominent figures as former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and the widow of former Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas joined less-well-known players this year in accusing union and league officials of abandoning needy players. The retirement plan's fund contains $1.1 billion and covers retirement, disability and death benefits. Retired players can receive $110,000 a year if they are declared "totally and permanently disabled" within 15 years of leaving football. There are also various levels of partial disability.

Defending the system

Upshaw has defended the integrity of the system but has proposed measures to speed it up so players don't have to wait months or longer for aid. Asked if he felt sorry for struggling retired players, the Hall of Fame offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders replied: "Of course, I do. I hope you don't take it as me appearing callous."

Upshaw's ambivalence in responding to allegations was understandable, according to Lanny Davis, an attorney at the Washington law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe retained by NFLPA to advise it on legal issues and media coverage related to retired players' benefits and other matters. Davis, a special counsel to President Clinton between 1996 and 1998, said Upshaw "was concerned about criticizing players who were in physical and mental pain even when they were making inaccurate attacks."

Upshaw has not always been reticent. He was quoted four months ago in the Philadelphia Daily News saying, "A guy like [Hall of Fame guard Joe] DeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.