After years of providing excellent coverage on the field, retired football player Reggie Williams questions a lack of coverage off the field — as the National Football League continues to deny him medical benefits following a bruising 14-year career.
A former NFL "Man of the Year" who played in two Super Bowls, Williams played linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1976 to 1989 and was later considered as a candidate for league commissioner. Today, the once sprightly athlete leans wearily on a crutch, his right leg three inches shorter than the left, a veteran of two dozen knee operations.
The knee problems as well as a bone infection have cost Williams hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket medical expenses, with more to come. Since Williams doesn't qualify for the NFL's disability benefits, he's fighting his former franchise team on a workers' compensation claim, asserting that his health ailments derive from his work for their business.
"All they've done is fought me on everything," Williams told media, "including even sending me a Band-Aid."
At the crux of the matter is whether the NFL or its franchises should pay for business-related medical problems arising years after retirement. Though the average player's career lasts less than four seasons, retired players face numerous health problems long after the 5-year post-retirement health coverage provided by the league. One quarter of retirees would require a joint replacement, studies show, with former players five times more likely to develop arthritis and four times more likely to suffer neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
While players who work fewer than three seasons don't qualify for long-term health benefits at all, nearly 60 percent of players who later apply for disability benefits — a program administrated jointly by management and the players' union — are denied claims, often disputed by their former teams. Presently, Williams is in the company of some 3,000 former players fighting the league for medical compensation.
Mel Owens, a retired player who is now a lawyer representing Williams, said medical claims are directly related to the business of the league. "First and foremost, the NFL is in the hurt business," he said. "In workers' comp they will end up paying for the players' brains, hearts and livers, as well as orthopedic injuries, and it's expensive. But they don't want to pay at all."
In seeking recompense for medical costs, retired players have turned California into a benefits battleground, given the state's most generous workers' compensation laws. Whereas Williams' home state of Ohio allows claims within a 5-year statute of limitations, California recognizes "cumulative trauma" and also allows out-of-state workers to file.
However, the California state senate would later this month consider a bill passed by the assembly to limit such coverage, closing the option or thousands of former professional athletes from a bygone era in which they made fare less money than today's stars.
Owens says the legislative maneuvering in California is sponsored by business interests to shunt the cost of medical care onto players and, ultimately, the taxpayer. Like many large businesses in America that employ mostly part-time workers to avoid health coverage requirements, a lack of coverage for retired NFL players means more claims to Medicare and Social Security disability.
"It's cost shifting," said Owens, the former player turned attorney who represents hundreds of ex-athletes. "It's shifted to the U.S. government and Social Security. If the teams will not pay, or the insurance companies won't pay for work-related injuries, where do the guys go?"
A 2008 congressional report on the subject found that many of the 18,000 former NFL players cannot pay for their health care, leaving an impact on "society as a whole."
Business Insider says the NFL's revenue rose 5.6 percent in the 2011-2012 season to $9.5 billion.