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Former NFL players sue over disability claims, accuse league of systematic bias

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Several former National Football League players have flied a class-action lawsuit against the league's benefits plan, its board of trustees and Commissioner Roger Goodell in federal court Thursday, alleging that the board and the benefits plan wrongfully denied benefits to former players. 

The plaintiffs include Willis McGahee, Eric Smith, Jason Alford, Daniel Loper, Michael McKenzie, Jamize Olawale, Alex Parsons, Charles Sims, Joey Thomas and Lance Zeno. 

The lawsuit claims that "repeated lies; material misrepresentations; active concealment; flagrant violations of" relevant statues, regulations and case law and "illogical interpretations of the terms" of the benefits plan and "reliance on conflicted advisors" have "resulted in a pattern of systemic bias" against disabled NFL players. 

"Plaintiffs seek to pull back the curtain on behalf of all similarly situated former NFL Players, bringing many relevant factual and legal issues concerning the Plan to light," the group said in the lawsuit. 

The plaintiffs said that the board's behavior was "motivated by financial considerations to limit the payment of benefits" from the plan. 

The plaintiffs are represented by several legal teams, including lawyer Chris Seeger, who led the NFL concussion settlement, which in 2016 won $1 billion for former players. The lawsuit seeks to recover benefits that the players claim they are owed, and prohibit further violations of the terms of the plans. 

The players also said that the board acted hostile and used other "unscrupulous tactics" to deny claims. They also alleged that the benefits plan decisions were made by doctors who had an interest in denying benefits: Instead of being "neutral physicians," the doctors are "selected and paid by the Board," which does not make an effort to collect statistics and ensure that the physicians are "indeed neutral and unbiased." 

The complaint also alleged that the board has failed to review all relevant material for claims and instead supported the conclusions of its physicians. This pattern, the players said, shows a pattern of the board repeatedly breaching its fiduciary duty to players. 

In a press conference on Thursday morning, Samuel Katz, an attorney who specializes in disability law and who has represented NFL players in other lawsuits, said that data showed one board-paid neuropsychologist earned $820,000 in direct and indirect compensation. In a statistical sample of 29 benefit conclusions, the neuropsychologist denied all 29 claims, the lawsuit says. 

Charts included in the lawsuit appear to show that in many cases, physicians who denied more claims received more compensation from the board. 

In a statement, the NFL said that the benefits plan "annually provides more than $330 million to deserving players and their families." 

"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," the league said. "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."

In a press conference on Thursday morning, several players spoke candidly about what the lack of disability benefits meant to them. Eric Smith, a former New York Jets player who also spent some time coaching in the NFL, said that "day to day, every day" he is "in pain" and needs a shoulder replacement at 39 years old. 

Smith said that when he traveled from New Jersey to North Carolina to be examined by a benefits plan physician after consulting with his own doctor, his appointment took just "five minutes." According to the lawsuit, he was denied benefits in 2013 by a doctor who was found to have a 100% denial rate in a sample. He appealed the case in 2014, but the appeal was denied. 

"It's just frustrating. You think about all we did for them, all the injuries we played through. You lay your body on the line for them, trying to make your team the best you can ... and once you're done, it's 'Here's our disability plan. We'll take care of you. Here's your five years of insurance, you'll be fine after that,'" Smith said. "It's a sham." 

In 2015, the suit alleges Smith was examined again, by a doctor who was paid just over $34,000 by the board. He was approved for some benefits. The next year, that doctor's compensation fell to just over $16,700, the suit says. When Smith applied for further benefits, he was seen by multiple doctors, all of whom were paid highly by the board, and those further benefits were denied, the lawsuit claims. 

Willis McGahee, a former NFL runningback who played for three teams during his 11-year professional career, said that he also struggles with pain and emotional turmoil related to the lack of care, saying that some days it is "hard to get out of bed." He said in the press conference that he has had 15 surgeries, and his own doctors have told him that his body "looks like an 80 year old man" because of the arthritis and joint injuries he has suffered. 

In 2016, he said he was denied disability benefits by the board. In a sample looking at 33 examinations conducted by the neurologist who examined McGahee, the doctor said that in none of those cases did he find a player eligible for benefits, according to the lawsuit. McGahee was also seen by a neuropsychologist, who according to a sample, has an 87.5% denial rate, the suit says. A 2020 appeal by McGahee was also denied. The doctors who examined him then also were sampled, and in those samples they were found to never approve a player for benefits, the lawsuit claims. 

"It's time for me to step up. It's time for other players to step up and say something," McGahee said. "We're not just going to sit back and just let it all fall down on us and take the beating. I did it for five years. It got me nowhere. It's time to open my mouth to say something." 

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