Damar Hamlin’s shocking brush with death on the field during Monday Night Football’s contest between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals has once again brought attention to the welfare of both active and retired players and an utter lack of empathy by the league.
Privy to the real-time conversations between the NFL and game officials, ESPN reported that the league initially planned to have the visibly shaken players resume play after Hamlin was resuscitated and taken off the field in an ambulance. The NFL initially denied the report, but Troy Vincent, Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the NFL, later confirmed that ESPN’s reporting was accurate.
Though the NFL eventually deferred to the coaches and players, the original plan to resume the game was indicative of the NFL’s complete disregard for players’ well-being.
The case of Michael Cloud
The NFL’s ongoing institutional mistreatment of players was highlighted most recently in the high-profile case of former player Michael Cloud. Cloud, who played in the NFL from 1999 to 2006, endured a litany of back and neck injuries, including the now familiar issue of players suffering frequent and severe head traumas.
The snowballing aftermath of one such blow to the head in 2004 led to Cloud’s early retirement after only seven seasons. Cloud started receiving partial benefits in 2010 as part of his retirement plan, but by 2014 he was completely disabled.
With his worsening condition, he applied to have his benefits reclassified and increased but was denied by the administrators of The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan. He appealed and was again denied.
In his 2020 lawsuit against the league, the appalling inner workings of the NFL’s retirement plan came to light. That long-term disability claims are frequently denied by insurance companies after the first application is common knowledge these days. Still, the NFL’s claims review process gave pause to Judge Karen Gren Scholer.
The NFL’s atrocious claims review process
As detailed in Scholer’s opinion, Cloud’s 1000-page appeal was denied in what can only be described as a speed round of claim reviews, during which the board allegedly ruled on roughly 100 claims in a 10-minute “pre-meeting.” This process is said to have involved a paralegal summarizing Cloud’s claim for the board. Even more alarmingly, it’s believed that the committee had made up their minds before the meeting and rejected the application “on ad hoc grounds.” In the rejection summary, the board cites documents from an entirely different plan and then contradicts themselves in the same denial letter.
Per the judge, “[t]he Board’s review process, its interpretation and application of the Plan language, and overall factual context all suggest an intent to deny Plaintiff’s reclassification appeal regardless of the evidence.” Notably, the NFL plan is known to have claimed that it “never settles” lawsuits brought by disabled former players.
The court awarded Cloud the maximum benefits under the NFL’s disability plan, in addition to retroactive benefits of more than $1 million and $200,000 in interest.
As the NFL grapples with the Hamlin controversy, players, coaches and fans are once again mired in the difficult cognitive dissonance of the game they love regarding its players as disposable commodities.