Ten former players sue NFL's benefits plan over 'unscrupulous tactics'
Feb 9 (Reuters) - Ten retired National Football League Players (NFL) filed a class-action lawsuit against the league's benefits plan, board of trustees and Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday, accusing them of "unscrupulous tactics" to wrongfully deny claims.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Maryland, alleges financially-incentivized doctors were given additional cases if they denied more claims, with the goal of limiting benefit payments to the players for whom the plan was designed.
The complaint also accuses the defendants of a "disturbing pattern of erroneous and arbitrary benefits denials, bad faith contract misinterpretations, and other unscrupulous tactics" as a way to wrongfully deny disability claims.
"These benefits are not a gift, these were bargained for, this is part of the deal, they are entitled to it," Christopher Seeger, one of the lawyers representing the players, told reporters during a video news conference.
"Nobody is asking for any favours or handouts, just asking for what the players are entitled to, that's it."
The disability plan was established by the league and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) as part of the collective bargaining agreement.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email to Reuters that the plan annually provides over $330 million to those who meet eligibility requirements developed after consultation with occupational, mental and physical health experts.
"The NFL-NFLPA disability plan is fair and administered by a professional staff overseen by a board comprised of an equal number of appointees of the NFL Players Association and the league, which includes retired players," said McCarthy.
"This board reviews the activities of the office and operation of the benefit program, including every contested application for benefits, to ensure that retired players who are entitled to disability benefits receive them as intended."
The NFLPA did not respond when asked to comment on the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs include two-time Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee and Eric Smith, a former safety who played seven seasons in the NFL and, according to the lawsuit, suffered 13 documented traumatic brain injuries.
"The NFL likes to pretend like they care about player safety, but it's only when something big-time happens in a game they are like 'oh yeah, we'll fix this'," said Smith.
"But once it's past and all the media has given up on that they don't care anymore. Like us players, they don't care about us anymore."
The other plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are Jason Alford, Daniel Loper, Michael McKenzie, Jamize Olawale, Alex Parsons, Charles Sims, Joey Thomas and Lance Zeno.
The lawsuit comes near the end of an NFL season where player safety was at the forefront after Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during a game while Tua Tagovailoa was writhing on the field after suffering a concussion.
While Goodell did not address the lawsuit directly on Wednesday during his annual Super Bowl news conference ahead of Sunday's championship game, he did call the NFL's benefits package "extraordinary".
"You don't want people to benefit from it that don't qualify for it because it takes away from people who do qualify for it," said Goodell.
"So you are always going to have people who think they may qualify for it, doctors disagree, a joint board disagrees, that's the way the system works.
"But I would tell you, the benefits in the NFL are off the charts."
The plan's board consists of Goodell, who is a non-voting member, three individuals selected by the NFLPA and three by the NFL Management Council.
According to the lawsuit, the players argue the benefits themselves are not the issue but rather the many challenges to receiving them.
"It's time for me to step up, it's time for other players to step up and say something," McGahee, the highest-profile player named in the suit, told reporters.
"We are not just going to sit back and just let it all fall down on us and take the beating."
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