League responds to issue of concussion grievances
While the NFLPA generally, and former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer specifically, have taken issue with the apparent disconnect between the league’s efforts to protect players from concussions and an alleged unwillingness to provide ongoing salary to players who retire after being advised to do so due to concussions, the NFL points out that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement provides players with unprecedented protections.
“A player that is medically prohibited from playing as a result of a concussion qualifies for his salary and injury protection benefit as specified in the Collective Bargaining Agreement,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello recently told PFT by email. “In addition, we have made significant improvements in the new CBA to address cognitive health, including the use of independent neuropsychologists to determine whether a player should be medically cleared to return to play, a new neurological care benefit, expanded disability benefits, an expanded neurological care program for former players, the opportunity for players to have lifetime medical care through our current health care program, and an increase in the 88 Plan benefit.”
The league’s comments essentially represent the flip side of the P.R. effort engineered by the NFLPA and Hillenmeyer. But neither side arguably should be saying much of anything about this publicly, since each side agreed to an independent grievance process for resolving these issues. (As to the specific claims that are pending, the NFL has declined to comment.)
If Hillenmeyer or any other player who retired due to concussions can show that he has an open-and-shut entitlement to ongoing salary, then the grievance process to which the NFL and the NFLPA agreed easily (and quickly) should find in his favor. If the evidence shows that Hillenmeyer or others don’t fall within the relevant definitions for ongoing pay, the NFL will prevail.
The battleground for these issues will be the application of the language of the CBA regarding career-ending injuries to the facts of each case. As in most cases, the two sides will have different interpretations as to how that happens.
Faulting the NFL for taking the position that the player shouldn’t receive ongoing salary misses the mark, unless the NFL is advancing frivolous or fabricated facts or arguments. Either way, the process is no different than the one utilized when a team and a player argue about whether a knee or a foot or an ankle or a shoulder injury prevents the player from ever playing again. Those quasi-legal fights routinely occur, but we rarely hear anything about them. The league’s recent sensitivity to the concussion issue has opened the door for the NFLPA to criticize the league for any position or argument that superficially conflicts with the NFL’s desire to prevent concussions and to protect players who are suffering from the effects of head injuries.
But the line has to be drawn somewhere. If the league decides to start coughing up cash whenever any player blames concussions for the conclusion of his career, that generosity eventually would be abused by players who can find a doctor to “recommend” that they stop playing due to concussions, even though the reality is that the player no longer has the requisite skill.
Should the procedure be expedited? Yes. Should players who genuinely must retire due to concussions receive the compensation to which they are entitled? Absolutely. But absent evidence of fraudulent efforts to block otherwise legitimate payments, it’s premature to blame the NFL for exercising its rights under the grievance procedure to which the league and the players have agreed.