The NFL’s Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit

Many types of football injuries can end a player’s career, but a head injury can end a player’s quality of life long after their football career is over.  I was one of the fortunate players that never got “knocked out”, but I did get my bell rung on numerous occasions. My wife swears that I have short-term memory loss.  Anyway…..what was I talking about?  Oh yeah, head injuries!

I am glad to see the NFL and NFLPA doing more to prevent, reduce and treat players that have suffered concussions. Commissioner Goodell said “We want to make sure all NFL players, coaches and staff members are fully informed and take advantage of the most up-to-date information and resources as we continue to study the long-term impact of concussions.”

The NFL’s new guidelines on concussion management include a telephone hotline that make it easier to report to the League when a player with a head injury is being forced to practice or play against medical advice. All players are now given baseline cognitive tests during their training camp physicals.  When a player sustains a concussion they are required to take the test again to determine if they have improved enough to be allowed to play again.  

NFL rule changes have been instituted to make certain head hits illegal. Some players have been heavily fined for using their helmets as a weapon.  On a side note, I like the fact that the fine money goes into the Players Assistance Trust Fund to help retired players having financial and medical problems. That’s karmic justice, because the concussion issue was brought to the attention of the public of the due to the advocacy of retired players – not active players.  We saw what was happening to our fellow alumni long after the cheering had stopped.

In addition to the new concussion testing requirements, rule changes and better equipment – especially compared to when we played – the League has done some things to allow players to be compensated for injuries and medical conditions related to the brain.  

The League and the NFLPA established the 88 Plan which provides $100,000-a-year for nursing home care and up to $88,000 annually for adult day care for players that have been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease or ALS.  In the new CBA, those amounts increase to $130,000 and $118,000 in 2016.

The League and the NFLPA also agreed to take out the previous “causation” language in the Disability Plan with respect to Total and Permanent Disability.  A player no longer has to prove that his disability – brain injury or otherwise – was the result of NFL injuries.

The new CBA also created the Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit that will pay vested players no less than $3,000 a month for a diagnosed moderate cognitive impairment and no less than $1,500 a month for a diagnosed mild cognitive impairment.  Those payments will continue for 180 months (15 years) or until a player reaches the age of 55.  Beginning in 2013, the payments for those benefits will increase $500 a month for moderate cognitive impairment and $375 a month for mild cognitive impairment every other year.

A player receiving the moderate cognitive impairment benefit could potentially receive $540,000 over a 15 year period and a player receiving the mild cognitive impairment benefit could potentially receive $270,000 over a 15 year period.  

Here are a few more important eligibility requirements and items that retired players should know:

  • This benefit is only for players that have a credited season after 1994
  • A retired player cannot receive the Neuro-Cognitive benefit if they are currently receiving Line of Duty or Total and Permanent benefits under the Disability Plan or Pension Benefits under the Retirement Plan
  • A retired player does not have to show that his neuro-cognitive impairment arose from football
  • A player who becomes qualified for the neuro-cognitive benefit within 15 years of his last Credited Season and subsequently qualifies for “Inactive B” total and permanent disability will be entitled (until age 55) to an additional $20,000 above the $50,000 T&P benefit instead of the neuro-cognitive benefit.
  • A retired player must waive the right to sue the NFL

That last bullet point should raise some eyebrows, because it will prevent some players (if they receive the benefit) from joining concussion lawsuits or class action lawsuits related to concussions.

The actual language in the CBA states “The parties agree that the player’s right to receive benefits under this Article shall be contingent on the player’s agreement to and execution of the release and covenant not to sue referenced above.”

It also states that “The parties acknowledge and agree that the provision of the benefit under this Article shall not be construed as an admission or concession by the NFL Releasees or any of them that the NFL caused or causes, in whole or in part, the medical conditions covered by the benefit, or as an admission of liability or wrongdoing by the NFL Releasees or any of them, and the NFL Releasees expressly deny any such admission, concession, liability or wrongdoing.”     

I breifly spoke about this new benefit during the NFL Alumni press conference at the Super Bowl.  I specifically said that that the NFL was trying to reduce their liability by inserting the aforementioned language in the Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit. I also said that the NFL was doing this because concussion lawsuits could potentially bankrupt the NFL. I also mentioned that I would have liked to see the NFL provide the Neuro-Cognitive Benefit to ALL retired players. 

After the press conference, I was interviewed by J. Perez of Foxsports.com.  He did not include any of my statements about the Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit in his recent article, so it’s not too surprising that some people took my comments out of context, including John Hogan, a well respected disability attorney who has represented NFL players.  

Mr. Perez asked me if I was discouraging players from filing concussion lawsuits.  I told him no, that was not what I was implying when I said that concussion lawsuits could potentially bankrupt the NFL.  I also told him that I have encouraged players to do what is in their best interest – including joining concussion lawsuits. 

Unfortunately, none of the pre-1995 NFL players are eligible to apply for the Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit, so they have only three options; File a claim for NFL Disability – which is very difficult to win with regard to proving a brain injury; File for the 88 Plan and hope they can qualify, or take the NFL to court. 

Players eligible for the Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit will need to make an important decision about whether they should, or shouldn’t apply for the benefit.  If they receive it, it will prevent them from joining current or future concussion lawsuits against the NFL.

The things that will need to be considered and weighed before making that decision include:

  • How much could I potentially receive in a concussion lawsuit?
  • Is it more than what I would receive under the Neuro-Cognitive Disability Benefit? 
  • What are the chances that former players can win a concussion lawsuit or class action lawsuit against the NFL?
  • How long will it take for the case to be settled, decided and possibly appealed?

Former players need to know their options and rights under all NFL benefit plans and therefore the NFL Alumni Association will continue to provide retired players with all the information they need in order to make informed decisions.   

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About Jeff Nixon

Jeff was a first team consensus All-American from the University of Richmond in 1978. He is 7th in NCAA history with 23 career interceptions. Played for the Buffalo Bills 1979-1984. Led the team with 6 interceptions in Rookie Year. Holds Bills record for 4 takeaways in a single game - 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Tied Bills record with four consecutive games with an interception. After 5 knee surgeries Jeff retired from pro football in 1985. He worked for 13 years (1988-2000) as the Youth Bureau Director for Buffalo and Erie County. He has worked for the past 11 years as the Youth Employment Director for Buffalo. Plays guitar and was voted best R&B guitar player by Buffalo Nightlife Magazine in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Posted on February 9, 2012, in NFL Alumni News. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Jeff,
    Please tell me who you (and.or the Alumni Association) envision being eligible for this benefit? I posed the exact same question to DeMaurice Smith last fall at the Santa Clara Law School Symposium, and he never answered. The only guys I can imagine who might qualify, might be guys under 55, who haven’t taken their pension, not on disability or LOD, which means they must be working, and probably doing OK. However, as a disability attorney, I find it virtually impossible for someone to be working with a “moderate” cognitve impairment; and even a “mild” cognitve impairment would make sustained, competitive work activity incredibly difficult. I believe that it is little more than an “illusory” benefit – ie, of no real value, put into the CBAfor “show”.
    Further, as you note, most older retired players (pre-’93) are not eligible for this benefit. They are most likely the segment of the Alumni population most in need of this benefit.
    Last, yes, they took the stringent requirement of football causation away from Total and Permanent Disability Benefits, but it is my opinion they did so to help mask the number of former players who have become totally and permanently disabled as a sole result of football – mainly to try to limit their potential liability for future lawsuits; and to help prevent Congress (or the Dept of Labor/OSHA) from stepping in to re-write the rules of football.
    P.S. with regard to your advice that players who may be eligible for the neuro-cognitive have “an important decision (to make)” – how does someone with a serious cognitive disorder make an informed choice? Will the Benefits office advise them? The PA? The Alumni?

  2. “I find it virtually impossible for someone to be working with a “moderate” cognitve impairment; and even a “mild” cognitve impairment would make sustained, competitive work activity incredibly difficult.”

    John, I wouldn’t necessarily agree. You can do some things but as we get older our abilities weaken.

  3. Jim,
    I assume you are speaking from personal expeinece? I am speaking from the perspective of a disability attorney who sees the probems someone with a diagnosed cognitive impairment faces in trying to work on a full time nasis. Except perhaps, for a rather benevolent work situation.

  4. Hey Jeff, please let the guys know that I have now received all my increased benefits – the increased pension of $600 per month retroactive back to August 2011, plus the Legacy Fund, also retroactive back to August 2011.

    John Beasley
    Vikings ’67 – ’73
    Saints ’73 – ’74

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