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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The dark side of football

Mike Webster

Ex-Steeler’s Family Wins Ruling on Disability Claim With N.F.L.

Published: December 14, 2006

The final years of Mike Webster’s life were spent shuttling between flickers of clarity and binges into dark places, between homelessness, lawsuits and loose strands of stability. Webster, the Hall of Fame center with the Pittsburgh Steelers who retired in 1991, often had to be told by his son Garrett when to eat and when to shower, Webster’s mind having become so clouded after 17 seasons at the nexus of conflict on an offensive line.

Seven years after Webster filed a disability claim with the National Football League, his family won a federal appeals court ruling yesterday against the league’s pension plan, which had denied Webster an active football disability pension and paid him a lesser benefit.

In a 3-0 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a 2005 trial court ruling that Webster was totally and permanently disabled as a result of brain injuries from playing professional football. The ruling will result in an award of $1.5 million to $2 million to Webster’s four children and former wife.

Webster, who won four Super Bowls with the Steelers and also played for the Kansas City Chiefs, died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 50.

“It seemed like we battled everyone — the N.F.L., even the players’ union, which should be the first ones to support our case,” Garrett Webster, 22, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “There is a sadness that my dad’s not here to celebrate this, but there is also a happiness that other people’s voices can be heard, not just N.F.L. players but regular people with brain injuries, construction workers, police officers, firefighters, so when things happen to them, people can recognize the signs of a brain injury.”

Bob Fitzsimmons, the lawyer who filed the disability claim on Webster’s behalf and served as co-counsel, said: “This was Mike Webster’s personal battle that he would not give up on, and he was right. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the end, but I’m most happy for him and I’m sure he’s appreciating the victory.”

According to the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle N.F.L. player retirement plan and supplemental disability plan, which are jointly administered by a pension board of three league club owners and three representatives of the N.F.L. Players Association, retired players receive benefits based on years of service and the timing of injuries.

After Webster retired and filed his disability claim for his head injuries, the league gave him a disability plan for players who develop injuries six months after they retire, which falls under a degenerative disability plan.

The Webster estate moved to reclassify his disability as occurring at his retirement, which would place him in a more lucrative active disability plan. Fitzsimmons said the active disability plan paid roughly twice what the degenerative disability plan paid.

“We hired several physicians and they all said Mike had been disabled since March of 1991,” Fitzsimmons said. “Despite all of that evidence, the pension board said no. Just because Mike showed up at a few autograph signings, people would say, ‘He isn’t injured, he was engaged in gainful employment.”

The court ruling came at the expense of the six-member N.F.L. pension board, which had voted, 6-0, to keep Webster at the degenerative disability plan.

posted by Steve @ 12:32:00 AM

12:32:00 AM

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