September 16, 2017
“I intimately know of the pain, responsibility and exacerbation and caretaking of my husband who I thought would take care of me,” says Susan Owens, widow of former NFL/49ers wide receiver R. C. “Alley Oop” Owens. “Instead, my husband turned into a stranger who seemed to hate me for having to take care of him.”
Susan is one of many women married to former NFL football players whose dreams and plans have been shattered by the reality of dementia. “I intimately know of the disappointment, fear and financial doom associated with this disease,” she reiterated.
A player’s path after retiring from the NFL is filled with uncertainties. Some players start a successful business, while others start businesses that don’t make it. Others learn completely new jobs; a few fortunate ones manage to make a name for themselves in sports broadcasting. Still, others find a new vocation in coaching – at least until the injuries to their bodies and/or brains start to catch up.
R. C. was fortunate to work as an Administrative Assistant to Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers, for 23 years after his playing career,” Susan related. “He loved his job and was so appreciated by the 49ers staff; he thought and hoped he would continue his employment well into his 80’s, as his mentor, Bill Walsh had planned. At the end of the 2000 Football season, when R. C. was 66 years old, Bill Walsh had to ask R. C. to retire from the job he loved. He told me that R.C. could no longer remember vital parts of his job even though, for several years, he constantly wrote every conversation on his yellow note pad he always kept with him. After his forced retirement, R.C. applied for NFL disability retirement benefits three times for various physical disabilities and the Alzheimer’s disease that was caused from his job as a football player. He was denied each time because he didn’t remember to apply in the short window of time that was open for him,” Susan said.
My research into disability denials has revealed this as a frequent ploy on the part of the disability board. A missed deadline leads to an automatic denial regardless of medical history, records or documentation of illness, injury and disability – sometimes even without a review of medical records.
“Since R. C. was an expert lecturer throughout his career, he tried to continue with his speaking engagements and then couldn’t understand why he was not asked back after one appearance,” Susan recalled. “When R. C. was asked to retire, I retired with him in 2000. To increase our income, I started 2 very successful small businesses that were only a mile away from where we lived and I was able to drive home to check on R. C. throughout the day. It was necessary to abandon both businesses when it became apparent that R. C. was not capable of making everyday judgment calls to keep himself safe at home during my workdays.” Susan said that R. C. would frequently leave their home and get lost, or if he stayed home would invite strangers off the street into their home. He took to cutting up raw meat to feed their dogs and often made upsetting phone calls to family and friends when Susan was away.
“Regretfully, in 2005, I had no choice but to give up my business and devote all of my resources to R. C.’s health, personal and financial care,” Susan recalled. “With no financial or emotional help we were forced to file for bankruptcy and in 2011, our home we had lived in for 13 years was foreclosed.” Within a year of the bankruptcy and foreclosure, R.C. lost his battle against dementia, passing away in 2012, leaving Susan completely alone with little in the way of financial resources and no support from the NFL or Players Association who tout the mantra “Football is family.”
Susan recalls that in R.C.’s best season as a player he made only $30,000, leaving him with a $1,000 a month pension that was reduced for Susan after his death to an $800 per month survivor benefit.
Susan tells of her own battle with depression and how she was overtaxed and overwhelmed both mentally and physically in trying to “care for, make excuses for and love a man who had turned into an unrecognizable stranger.” As is common in NFL circles, Susan told me, “R. C. was adamant that we never discussed any of his physical or mental disabilities and especially not to ever mention his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease with anyone. Of course this left no emotional support for either one of us.”
Susan continued, “I intimately know of the overpowering heartache of watching someone you loved lose his mind and dignity to the point of no return. Shortly before he died he spent months in the hospital for a severe spinal infection. The images that the physician shared with me showed the bottom of his spine smashed up like tangled spaghetti. Throughout everything, he could still repeat and often did, his entire football story. One of those that comes to mind, now, is the story when he or one of his beloved teammates would ‘get their bell rung’ and knocked out unconscious several times during a game. The trainer would ask three questions and they were allowed to miss one to get back into the game. The three questions were; ‘what team do you play for? what state are you in? and what is your name?’ If he couldn’t remember his name he still would be considered fit enough to continue back in-game for play.”
“Retired Football Players usually have great difficulties admitting to any type of injury or illness especially mental,” Susan said. “They tend to live their retired lives in denial, knowing that they could probably ‘suit up’ any weekend and be ready to play even if they, at times, can’t remember their names. Consequently, they do not want to know nor seek professional help for diagnosis until urgent life crises encourages them to reveal their secret symptoms.”
“In R. C.’s life it took the fear of getting lost near his home several times and having someone, other than me, find him before he would agree to see a Neurologist. Alzheimer’s disease can begin and last through a 20-year span of time. Getting lost is one of the later stages of Alzheimer’s Disease yet that is the date that he allowed to be diagnosed because of his, ‘never say you can’t go’ football mentality. Sadly, this was still the creed that retired football players lived by in 2006 before the awareness of playing the game of football that leads to concussions [will] cause traumatic brain injuries.”
When badly damaged retired players are often asked whether they’d do it all over again, you see a mixed bag of responses. Once, shortly before he died, R.C was in a rare, lucid state and Susan asked him as he sat in his wheelchair appearing “so little, crumbled up, but happy,” as she recalled, ‘knowing, now, how your life after football has turned out, if you had the chance to do it all over – would you still play football?’” He shook his head and said, “No.”
Susan’s battles still aren’t over. She takes issue with the fact that concussion settlement awards decline steeply on age of diagnosis and points out that research strongly indicates that early-onset dementia under age 80 is most often caused by brain trauma combined with possible genetic predisposition, whereas post-80 diagnoses are typically attributed to old age.
“No one, most predominately ex-football players, would ever want to know they have, a disease that is eating away at their brain,” Susan says, adding that settlement awards “should not be based on the day they had no other choice but to have a physician tell them that retirement from football didn’t leave them with only broken bodies but also broken minds and that they soon will, additionally, lose their total sense of self.” She has voiced that she feels the NFL should recognize this with a separate monetary award for “those retired football players that lost their lives without knowing that this was their destiny from their jobs as football players.” She adds, “Most did not play the game of football for financial gain rather they just played for the love of a sport they knew could bring with it many broken bones but never thought it would cause them to lose their minds.” She points out, “These retired players had to bear all of their hardships and losses without any help from the NFL yet were instrumental in building this tremendous franchise into what it is today.” Susan’s wish for these factors to be taken into account didn’t happen. The monetary determinations are shown in the table below.
The requests of Susan and others in her position were denied and the settlement leaves the men in R.C.’s age bracket along with their families with comparatively small settlement awards – if anything at all is left after liens and offsets come out. Six months into the settlement claims period only two known settlements have been paid and those were depleted with deductions. As I wrote last month, a player with ALS saw what should have been a $4.5 million award whittled to $1.5 million. $2.2 million of the deduction was attributed to a Medicare lien – except the player has never received Medicare, instead relying on private insurance through his wife’s employer. The lien administrator informed them that the money would continue to be withheld until they could verify that the private insurer didn’t have a lien against them. This has been verified, yet no monies have been returned to the player and his family.
Numerous motions have been filed questioning deficiency notices and asking the Court to administrate claims as written in the settlement, stating that the process being administered is not the one that was agreed to in writing. Despite a definitive diagnosis that killed him before the settlement was even finalized, Susan and R.C.’s claim was one of those kicked back. Lawyers representing clients such as Susan are trying to figure out how to dot all the “i’s” and cross all the “t’s” to the claims administrator’s satisfaction since the reasons for “deficiency” are not defined in the agreement.
A motion filed last week states that out of 200 players represented by a particular firm, who have filed claims, only two have received award letters and those two have been audited, further delaying their awards. While the settlement provides for a random audit of 10% of claims, the attorney finds it peculiar that 100% of his approved claims are under audit.
As all of the motion practice takes place and the legal drama plays out, Susan and others in similar situations wait and wonder if there will ever be an end to the process – and if it does eventually find conclusion, will there actually be any money for the players and their families? This question remains unanswered and confidence in the settlement which once represented hope sometimes appears dim.
Much appreciation to Susan Owens for sharing her story.
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Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.