Mike Webster to Ted Johnson: Are the NFL and the New York Times Kidding?

I don’t want to turn this blog into a soapbox, and as someone who really likes newspapers, I also don’t want to join the Greek chorus of self-appointed media watchdogs that seems to make up much of the blogosphere. Some things, however, such as this article in the New York Times, call out for a skeptical and critical reaction. The article explains how the NFL has now created a program to provide some funding for long term, home or facility, care for former pro players who “have various forms of dementia,” even though the NFL insists that football injuries to the brain - multiple concussion syndrome, anyone, for those of you who follow the sport? - are not the cause. The article seems to credit the NFL for providing this help to former players - help that, despite the vast wealth of the league, is capped at $88,000 a year - and praises the idea that this problem is being resolved through this program rather than by litigation, i.e. by former players suing the NFL. Astoundingly, the article describes the program as addressing an unmet need because, and I quote the Times here on this, “former players who have dementia do not qualify for the N.F.L.’s disability insurance program, because neither the league nor the union consider their conditions football-related, a stance that has been cast in doubt by several scientific studies.”

And yet, as I discussed in this post several months ago, the family of the late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster litigated that exact issue for years, finally defeating the NFL, the players association and the plan before the Fourth Circuit court of appeals, to recover benefits under the league’s ERISA governed pension and disability system for exactly this type of injury. The Fourth Circuit’s opinion, in fact, was a pretty powerful condemnation of the roadblocks that had been tossed in Webster and the estate’s path in their attempt to obtain the benefits.

Which brings me to a couple of points that should be kept in mind in reading the Times article and considering the value of the NFL’s new program that the article praises. First, I suspect that the pension plan/disability plan system that the Webster family targeted provides far greater benefits than does this separate plan discussed in the article. If so, the idea that former players should pursue help under that program, rather than through the pension plan, is a disservice to retired players. Second, again if I am right about the greater benefits available under the pension/disability plan, then one has to wonder whether the separate NFL plan discussed in this article, although commendable for providing some help to aging players, actually serves as something of a Trojan horse (not a perfect analogy, I know) that, intentionally or otherwise, draws retired players away from seeking the larger payouts of the pension/disability system and instead to this plan. And third, given that a leading federal court of appeals with a significant track record in ERISA cases has already found that the NFL’s pension and disability plan actually does cover brain injuries of this type, the article is simply off-base in stating that dementia falls outside of the plan.

The article notes the relevance of this issue to some high profile recent players, such as Ted Johnson of the Patriots, 34, whose doctors”said he was exhibiting the depression and memory lapses associated with oncoming Alzheimer’s.” Those players should, notwithstanding this article, first be looking to the NFL’s pension and disability plans, particularly in light of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling in the Webster case, for compensation and care, before settling for the limited assistance provided by this alternative plan.

And finally, this whole matter brings me back to an issue I have talked about in the past, about questionable decision making by courts concerning what decisions to publish and what ones not to publish in the ERISA context. The Fourth Circuit’s decision in the Webster case, to my recollection, was not marked for publication (you can locate it, however, at my earlier post on that case). Yet, really, the scope of NFL plan benefits for this type of mental injury had never been resolved before, and it remains, as this article in the Times reflects, not well understood, making this an opinion that probably should have been published, and should not have been part of what I have called in the past “the hidden law of ERISA.”

Written By:Bret Clark On March 16, 2007 12:08 PM

I heard a panel discussion between a district court judge and a few circuit court judges discussing this topic. Most were from the Ninth Circuit. The circuit judges said that decisions were sometimes designated unpublished in order to get agreement from a panel member on the fence about an issue.
This same panel was highly critical of the new rule allowing citation to unpublished decisions and essentially said that in the Ninth Circuit citations to unpublished decisions will be ignored.
The panel members had objected to the new rule on the grounds that: (1) as mentioned above, consensus is sometimes obtained only because a decision will be unpublished and (2) unpublished decisions don't have any law that is helpful.
The two justifications are inconsistent. Further, I have since discussed this issue with very few people who have never found useful support to an argument in an unpublished decision.
Designating a decision as unpublished in order to get consensus is bad for the judicial system. It decreases predictability and forces issues to be needlessly relitigated (as discussed in your post). Consensus is a good thing but in many cases it isn't as important as giving clear guidance.
I like the new rule allowing citation to unpublished decisions because it changes the incentives. Even though the Ninth Circuit says it will ignore unpublished decisions I am sure that since the rule became effective, fence sitters are more reluctant to capitulate and more likely to make thought out decisions.
Hopefully the result is fewer unpublished decisions discussing important topics.

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