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Unpublished Paper
Only the Head Strong Survive: The Tragic Course of Head Injury Claims Under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan
ExpressO (2012)
  • Elverine Jenkins, John Marshall Law School

Summary of Only the Head Strong Survive: The Tragic Course of Head Injury Claims Under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan

Employee benefits are historically and systematically used by employers of private corporations to attract, retain, and reward good employees. Benefits, such as retirement pensions, stock, medical, and disability payments, are promised to employees in exchange for long periods of employment and above average work performance. Providing said benefits are completely voluntary and for many years these promises were unregulated. As one can imagine, unregulated promises often resulted in companies not fulfilling its promises, whether due to some inability or outright unwillingness. What happened when a promise was made to an employee and then later broken? Was there a remedy in state law courts? Prior to 1974, there was hardly a remedy. Most causes of actions in state courts proved futile either because companies terminated their pension plans or the company itself went bankrupt and had no money to honor its promises.

Congress saw the need, after many years of litigation, to enforce promised benefits, to react on behalf of aggrieved employees. Congress’ answer was the creation of a federal law designed to protect employees and their beneficiaries from employers who sought to break promises upon retirement. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was enacted in 1974 to regulate companies who provide retirement plans and other employee benefits. ERISA provides many remedies to an aggrieved employee or beneficiary, however those remedies are very limited.

This article is written to shed light on one fallacy of ERISA: inadequate remedies. ERISA’s remedies are limited to repayment of benefits not paid that should have been paid, reimbursement of any money spent by an employee on attorney’s fees or medical bills and the like, and ensures future benefits are payable. This thesis is introduced in section 1 of the article, using the NFL Player Retirement Pension Plan as an example, specifically shedding light on disability claims brought by injured players that are most often denied. It is appropriate to utilize NFL disability claims because of the high physical contact nature of the sport and the disproportionate number of disability claims that are denied compared to the high number of claims actually brought against the plan each year. It is my belief that equitable remedies “allow ERISA plan sponsors to impose self-serving terms that severely restrict the ability of a reviewing court to correct a wrongful benefit denial”. Section 2 of the article discusses the history of ERISA and the current NFL Player Retirement Plan. Part A presents the historical background of ERISA’s enactment as well as the types of benefits that are governed by ERISA. Part B describes the emergence of the current NFL Player Retirement Plan. It points out that the current plan is merging of two separate plans pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the exclusive collective bargaining representative for NFL players and the exclusive collective bargaining representative for NFL clubs.

Section 3gives a full account of disability benefits under the current NFL Player Retirement Plan, which are codified in the NFL Player Supplemental Disability Plan. The Supplemental Plan provides two types of disability benefits: Total and Permanent (T&P) Disability and Line-of-Duty (LOD) Disability. A player, once injured, can apply for one or both benefits, but each benefit has its own separate and distinct rigorous qualifications a disabled player must meet and prove before he can collect on any of the promised benefits.

Part A of Section 3gives an informative account of T&P Disability benefits, how a player qualifies, and the potential amount that can be awarded to injured players. The Plan offers four types of T & P benefits: active football, active non-football, football degenerative, and inactive. Part B goes on to discuss the Line-of-Duty benefits, its definition, and how an injured player will qualify.

Next discussed in section 4 are recent cases where the players were denied benefits followed by sections 5 and 6, which gives a detailed account of how claims are made as well as the administrative process in making head injury claims. Section 7 of the article talks about policy reasons for claim denials. On the one hand, the NFL owners claim that pension funding is important, on the other hand the NFLPA seems to believe that most injured players do always not meet the necessary qualifications to receive disability benefits. Additionally, the NFLPA believes if the process is made too easy to receive benefits, then too many players will apply for disability benefits and the plan would not be able to cover the claims.

Finally, the article analyzes how the courts’ standard of review and deference do not allow most injured players an adequate recourse. The article concludes with the premise that ERISA’s remedies are inadequate. Aggrieved employees have very little recourse in federal law, even though there exists a law purportedly designed the protect the benefits promised to employees. ERISA has failed to provide adequate remedies, and has instead, become the vehicle through which plan sponsors and administrators circumvent the very premise of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

Publication Date
September 7, 2012
Citation Information
Elverine Jenkins. "Only the Head Strong Survive: The Tragic Course of Head Injury Claims Under the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Retirement Plan" ExpressO (2012)
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