In a rare victory for disabled former NFL players, Wilber Marshall, once a linebacker for the Washington Redskins, convinced a federal appeals court that the NFL's disability plan (the Plan) erred in determining the onset date for disability. The court found that Marshall was entitled to retroactive disability benefits for an additional eight month period plus his attorneys' fees.
Like any other employer sponsored disability plan, the NFL's plan is covered by ERISA. Because the Plan grants the Board the discretion to decide claims and interpret the plan, its decisions are usually upheld unless they are arbitrary and capricious. In this case, the Board used a physician's date of examination to fix the date of disability onset but ignored evidence in the report that the disability extended back at least eight months before the exam. The court held that such decision-making was an abuse of discretion.
Retired NFL players have long been unhappy with the NFLPA and the Plan. Only approximately two percent of former players are receiving disability benefits, which is a very small number considering the physical toll exacted on the players. At a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the NFL's system for compensating retired players, it was noted that: half of all players retire because of injury, sixty percent of players suffer a concussion, at least one quarter of players suffer multiple concussions, and nearly two-thirds suffer an injury serious enough to sideline them for at least half of a football season.
The retired players would like to see the NFL create a retirement and disability system that better protects players whose careers were shortened by injury and who now have little or no current capacity to earn a living.