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Former NFL players speak out against the league's handling of disability benefits

Willis McGahee, No. 26 of the Cleveland Browns, is tended to on the field in the fourth quarter of a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on Dec. 8, 2013,
Jared Wickerham
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Getty Images
Willis McGahee, No. 26 of the Cleveland Browns, is tended to on the field in the fourth quarter of a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on Dec. 8, 2013,

Blood, sweat and tears are the unspoken requirements every athlete must adhere to when playing in the National Football League. But once a player meets them – sacrificing their time and energy while risking their lives – they're often met with extra hurdles to maneuver later in life.

A group of former National Football League players is speaking out after a lawsuit was filed against the league, alleging that it wrongfully denied disability benefits repeatedly to former players.

According to the lawsuit, the players "seek recovery of benefits for the particular injury of wrongful denial of benefits; and equitable relief, such as an injunction Defendants' acts and practices that violate the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA)."

Many of the players listed in the lawsuit have been denied benefits multiple times by the doctors appointed by the NFL. They seek to remove the disability board members, citing the repeated breaches of their fiduciary duty.

While the lawsuit lists 10 players, attorneys say the lawsuit represents thousands who have filed for benefits before them.

"Because we brought it as a class action lawsuit, we don't have to name everybody who has been wronged, but there are thousands who have been," attorney Christopher A. Seeger said.

When submitting these claims to the NFL, the lawsuit says plaintiffs were forced to navigate a byzantine process to attempt to obtain those benefits, only to be met with denial.

Disability lawyer Samuel Katz detailed the disability claims process as such.

"The process of filing a claim consists of filing medical records, filling out an application and attaching a legal brief before a disability benefits coordinator is assigned to the case," Katz said.

After a coordinator is assigned, the players will see two appointed doctors and the initial claims committee will decide to approve or deny. If denied, players may appeal before the disability board for a final vote.

The majority of the time this results in a final denial and often players must wait over a year to reapply for benefits.

Former NFL player Jason "Jay" Alford is one of the 10 players listed on the lawsuit. He has been denied disability benefits twice. As a defensive lineman, Alford described colliding with an offensive lineman almost every play as "hitting a Mack truck."

Defensive tackle Jay Alford of the New York Giants sacks quarterback Tom Brady, No. 12, of the New England Patriots for a 10-yard loss in the final minute of Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Elsa / Getty Images
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Defensive tackle Jay Alford of the New York Giants sacks quarterback Tom Brady, No. 12, of the New England Patriots for a 10-yard loss in the final minute of Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Players have to seek alternatives to get necessary treatment

The accumulation of all those hits has resulted in a multitude of symptoms for Alford.

"I started to forget things more frequently. Headaches, you know I do graphic design now as my career so looking at the computer started to be a bit tough for me," Alford said.

In addition to those symptoms, Alford also detailed having bouts of dizziness with nausea. While Alford had no recorded concussions during his NFL career he says he has experienced a lot of "blackouts."

Despite his symptoms, Alford was told by four different appointed doctors that nothing was wrong when sought benefits from the NFL disability plan. As a result of this, he looked for doctors on his own and called the process night and day compared to that of the NFL.

"The doctors I've seen are the complete opposite. They gave me stuff that I needed to help my process and the issues that I did have, or how to correct them if there was a way," Alford said.

The transparency given to Alford by these independent doctors is just one thing the players and lawyers seek from filing this lawsuit. The players say they simply want what they're owed and what they bargained for during their collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

"There's a lot of guys that are probably in my same position that can't, you know, pay for these doctors, or pay for the treatment that they need. You know, just give us what we're owed," Alford said.

"...there's a lot of blood, sweat and tears that was put into this to make the NFL what the NFL is, and they make billions off of our backs," he added.

Team doctors are influenced by financial conflicts of interest, lawyers say

Nine of the 10 retired NFL players who have accused the league of lies, bad faith and flagrant violations of federal law in denying disability benefits in a potential class action lawsuit: From top left, Jay Alford, Daniel Loper, Willis McGahee, Mike McKenzie, Jamize Olawale; bottom row from left, Alex Parsons, Eric Smith, Charles Sims and Joey Thomas.
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AP
Nine of the 10 retired NFL players who have accused the league of lies, bad faith and flagrant violations of federal law in denying disability benefits in a potential class action lawsuit: From top left, Jay Alford, Daniel Loper, Willis McGahee, Mike McKenzie, Jamize Olawale; bottom row from left, Alex Parsons, Eric Smith, Charles Sims and Joey Thomas.

The lawsuit alleges that the rate of benefit denials is a result of biased doctors appointed by the NFL. Coincidentally, the more the NFL physicians get paid, the higher their rate of denial, it says.

"Defendants have improperly relied upon, and even defaulted their decision-making, to many physicians with significant financial conflicts of interest that substantially impacted their professional and ethical obligations," according to the suit.

Doctors who were paid $200,000 or more per year never concluded that a player was eligible for disability benefits. Out of the 118 physicians who were appointed to process these claims, nearly three out of five physicians have denial rates of 100%.

According to the lawsuit, these denials are inconsistent with the procedural and substantive requirements of ERISA.

Although the lawsuit has been filed in court there is still a long way to go before a final decision is made. Seeger says the lawsuit can take anywhere between four and six months until it reaches discovery, and a court date is assigned.

Until then the players represented will have to wait to get the answers and benefits they seek.

The NFL did not respond to NPR's request for comment regarding the lawsuit. Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, told USA Today earlier this year that the league's plan was collectively bargained by the league and the NFL Players' Association.

McCarthy told USA Today that the plan provides more than $330 million annually in benefits to eligible retired players.

"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," McCarthy said.

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Ajani Daniel