WASHINGTON — Pro football icons Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka and Daryl "Moose" Johnston on Tuesday accused the National Football League and its players union of turning their backs on hundreds on aging ex-players who have been denied disability assistance for devastating injuries.
Their testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation produced anecdote after anecdote of old football warriors beset by crippling injuries, dementia, loneliness and poverty as they to struggle survive long after their glory days.
"Former NFL players are hurting physically, emotionally and financially," said Johnston, a former Pro Bowl fullback for the Dallas Cowboys who is now a sports broadcaster on Fox TV. "The League needs to take care of these legendary players who made the game of football what it is today."
Garrett Webster told senators how he watched helplessly as his father "Iron Mike" Webster, who died in 2002 after a 17-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, steadily deteriorated in his later years and was once found shivering in a rat-infested hotel.
"Have any of you witnessed a once strong, proud man reduce himself to begging for Kentucky Fried Chicken?" Webster asked. "I have and I cannot forget."
Johnston told of Brian DeMarco, a former offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals who has been homeless three times in the last four years and lived in a storage unit for five months with his wife and two children.
DeMarco was "unable to navigate the NFL's disability system's red tape" even though his back was broken in 17 places, Johnston said.
"The system is broken," said Ditka, a former player and coach for the Chicago Bears. "Don't make proud men beg. Don't make them jump through hoops."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, defended their organizations' efforts on behalf of ex-players, pointing to what they described as substantial improvements in pension and health benefits.
"The men who played professional football decades ago deserve our respect and recognition, and their contributions to the game must never be overlooked," said Goodell. "I honor them and their achievements and neither I nor the NFL clubs will turn our backs on them."
Upshaw said that the players union has won "dramatically improved pension and disability benefits" since the early 1990s. He said that current players pay for the benefits of retired players and in the past year "voluntarily gave up $147.5 million to help former players."
Over the past 18 months, Upshaw said, active players also disbursed $1.5 million through a trust fund created in 1990 to help former players who need financial assistance.
Sayers, echoing Ditka and Johnston, told lawmakers that the system is so fraught with red tape and bureaucracy that former players are routinely denied claims.
"The current disability system routinely bars retired players from fair access to disability payments that offer a minimum standard of care," he said. "The image this disability issue projects to the public is beneath the dignity of the NFL."
Johnston, a Cowboys running back for 11 years until a neck injury sidelined his career, cited his own experiences with the benefits system, recalling that his disability claims were rejected by two physicians designated by the players union.
"I discovered by going through the NFLPA Disability process that this system was put in place to deny claims by former players," he said.
At a press conference with other players following the hearing, Johnston said he was encouraged by NFL Commissioner Goodell's promise to try to improve the system, but suggested that ex-players may be forced to develop their own bargaining group apart from the current players' union.
The objective, he said, would be to combine scattered groups that now speak on behalf of ex-players "to have a unified voice" with "strength in numbers."
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chaired the hearing, appeared sympathetic to the needs of ex-players, pointing out that NFL owners and players "control a big pot of money" that possibly could be used to help improve conditions for troubled gridiron retirees. He also suggested that lawmakers could apply the same kind of "pressure" they used to force Major League Baseball to crack down on steroid use.
Sayers urged Congress to use its oversight powers to make sure retirees are getting fair treatment. "For my part, if you will be referees," he said, "I promise you my best game."
(Additional reporting by Linda Epstein.)