Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The NFL Retirement Plan's Approach to Substance Abuse

Recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled former Eagle defensive lineman Sam Rayburn. Rayburn became addicted to painkillers and was arrested in March 2009 for forging prescriptions for controlled substances. Rayburn apparently began self-medicating during his career with the Eagles from 2003 to 2006. While he does not blame the Eagles trainers or coaches, it appears from the article that he may have obtained some prescription painkillers, legitimately, from the team doctors:

"You could get things when it was necessary," Rayburn said. "If you had an injury they were aware of, they would give you a certain amount. They wouldn't give you an entire prescription. Most of the injuries I was dealing with were undisclosed. I was going outside the team doctors and stuff like that to acquire the medicine I thought I needed. It was a deal where I was going out on my own and getting them from other doctors that I knew."

Interestingly, a player addicted to controlled substances prescribed by an NFL team physician could become eligible for disability benefits from the NFL Retirement Plan. If the player has a “total and permanent disability” caused by his “substantially continuous use” of a controlled substance prescribed for him for football-related injuries, he can receive benefits. This raises an interesting issue. Does the addiction itself qualify the player for benefits, or is the intention to limit eligibility only to retired player who has some secondary impairment (liver damage, perhaps) that was caused by the continuous use of the controlled substance?

Regardless of the answer, the existence of the exclusion may reflect the NFL's concern about painkiller abuse and the potential costs to the Retirement Plan. This provision was added to the Plan in 1998 to exclude most substance abuse disabilities from benefit eligibility. Exclusions are built into disability plans precisely to limit the insurer’s known risks. In this case, the Plan itself is the insurer. The existence of this exclusion in the Plan suggests that the NFL had, and perhaps still has, concerns about the possible abuse of painkillers by the players.