July 27, 2019
The NFL gridiron has often been compared to the gladiatorial displays of Ancient Rome. While the modern gladiators don’t typically fight to the death as their ancient counterparts did, they seldom escape the high-stakes contests without serious injuries. NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith stated in an interview with Face the Nation, “The injury rate in the National Football League is 100 percent,” Smith pointed out, arguing that when players retire, they all have pre-existing conditions.” While truer words may never have been spoken, the NFLPA has done little if anything to help the retired players with debilitating injuries as a result of their careers.
It’s almost as if a private gladiatorial contest is taking place off the public’s radar—one performed on-demand and at the pleasure of the league’s 32 billionaire owners—and with the apparent blessing of the NFLPA. It’s a contest that pits the NFL and NFLPA Plan’s chosen champion, Groom Law Group, against the retired players who return to collect the benefits they bargained for. Delvin Williams is the latest retired player to be forced into the ring.
Williams was drafted in the second round of the 1974 draft by the San Francisco 49ers, where he played through 1977. He was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 1978, and this was the year his career peaked as a First-team All-Pro selection. Though small for a running back, he carried the football more than 1,300 times and was the first player to amass more than 1,000 yards rushing in a single season. In 1980, Williams sustained a severe season-ending neck injury, the full extent of which was never disclosed to him. According to his lawsuit, the team’s doctors should have told him that he could no longer play football, but instead, he remained on the Dolphins active roster, despite the fact he did not play in any preseason or regular games in 1981 and was released mid-season. He signed with the Green Bay Packers but was unable to play and was released in October of that year. Oddly, and probably for purposes of liability, the Packers’ doctor gave him a clean bill of health, though he was clearly unable to play.
Williams was told by the Plan office in March 1982 that he must be examined by a Plan doctor and after the exam he must complete a disability form and return it and that he would be notified of the doctor, time, place, and appointment to report to. Finally, in October he received a letter with an application and instructions to see Dr. Arthur Holmboe.
The USFL Comes Knocking
During the spring and summer of 1982, Williams and his former teammate Larry Schreiber started brainstorming an idea. They wanted to create a program for newly retired players in transition. They wanted to focus on things like drug prevention and education, career planning, and psychosocial issues. At a loss as to where to begin, they contacted Byron Kunisawa, a noted program developer, designer, and trainer, and with his help, National Sports Career Management was born.
They pitched their ideas to the USFL, and late in 1982, the newly formed league asked Williams to play. Feeling unable to do so he declined. The Oakland Invaders’ owner, Ted Taube, and coach, John Ralston, however, continued to pursue Williams and promised he would not play much and that his role would be to mentor the young players. He would also do promotional and public relations work for the new team and league. Moreover, if he agreed to play, he would have a better chance of extending the USFL’s contract with NCSM. Despite reservations, he wanted the newly formed NCSM to succeed so he finally agreed. Here’s what happened next:
Unable to play football or engage in other full-time work, Williams completed the March 1983 appointment with Dr. Holmboe, who according to the complaint reported significant disabilities with respect to Williams’ toe and hand but didn’t address his other injuries because they weren’t insured by Fireman’s Fund and weren’t considered compensable. Williams submitted his disability claim for T & P dating his injuries to “1974 – 75 – 76 – 77 – 79 – 80.”
His T & P claim was denied by the Plan office and he appealed. The Plan office then sent him to Dr. Kevin D. Harrington, who also found him disabled.
(Note: LOD benefits are supposed to be awarded if a players’ disability is a direct result of his football play and rendered him disabled at the time of his retirement. This provision was limited to a 5-year term as opposed to T & P which is supposed to constitute total and permanent disability.)
Though he continued to promote NCSM, he did so only on a limited volunteer basis, receiving no compensation, from 1982 through 1986. Aside from this, he was unable to perform any work at all, outside the failed brush with USFL.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Unable to engage in gainful employment, but still desiring to contribute to the community, Williams and Schreiber started a kids’ charity, Pros for Kids, purposed to helping kids stay drug-free. Several other players got involved and procured a grant bringing the idea from dream to reality. Though he wasn’t involved in much of the day-to-day planning and implementation, Williams was appointed Executive Director as an honorary position of title only while Orle Jackson, a management team, and the board of directors ran and managed the organization.
Pros for Kids attracted the attention of First Lady Nancy Reagan and was successful for a while but dissolved in 1990 due to lack of funding.
After Pros for Kids shut down Williams made occasional appearances for United Way groups, but he was unable to engage for more than a few hours at a time. Between 1991 and 1995, Williams was asked to use his NFL status and connections within the San Francisco Bay Area community to promote the Committee on Jobs Alliance. Though he received modest compensation, his work consisted of occasional meetings with community groups. His contract with Jobs ended in February 1995.
After his affiliation with Jobs ended he attempted a return to the workplace but that return was very short-lived—a mere three months.
Disability Plan Round Two
As Williams was attempting to use his time productively in the limited ways that he could, unknown to him in 1993, the Disability Plan’s policy of awarding benefits only if a player had a single identifiable injury causing the disability as opposed to cumulative injuries which caused him to be disabled, was arbitrary and capricious in violation of ERISA. After he learned of this and other changes to the Plan in 1995, he reapplied for T & P.
In the letter approving his benefits, Williams was instructed to submit information if he wanted to receive benefits prior to May 1995, so he made a request for a retroactive date of July 1993, including records from the Plan doctor who found him disabled in 1984, but despite this, he was denied. He challenged the decision in district court and prevailed, but the district court was reversed at the Ninth Circuit, ruling the Retirement Board had not abused its discretion.
Delvin Williams is now seeking to have his benefits properly classified to reflect his football induced disability that forced his retirement in 1982, resulted in 19 surgeries and has prevented him from engaging in substantive employment for the entirety of his retirement 37 years ago outside the three-month attempt in 1995. Williams’ injuries didn’t suddenly become detached from football as the result of a new CBA, and herein lies part of the deception.
The NFL has a history of using any detail it can find to deny and discredit claims and the Plan attorneys at Groom Law Group have more tricks up their sleeves than a convention center full of magicians.
The CBA has provided benefits that look great on paper but rarely approves Active A benefits to defray costs leaving players like Williams struggling to survive on the scraps the Retirement Plan begrudgingly tosses out. While it’s one thing to deny benefits, and that’s bad enough, it’s perhaps even worse to reduce them once a player has a fixed amount that he’s been awarded and then that amount is reduced leaving him no way to make up the difference and placing his financial security in jeopardy and perhaps even placing his home at risk if the purchase was calculated against a higher income.
It seems the league’s powerbrokers must relish getting one last shot at seeing another former player fall as they cheer each reduction and denial from the sidelines of their Park Avenue coliseum reminding the players of their disposability. “At the end of the day, it’s about control and money. Those are the two things that really resonate with the NFL,” Minnesota Vikings tight end and player representative during the 1987 players’ strike told Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino regarding the ruthlessness of the owners.
In the case of Tyrone Keys, another player with a similar profile in that he was forced to retire because of injuries and then went through numerous reclassifications due to Plan amendments, as detailed in a prior article, the Plan has not only stripped him of benefits but seeks to reclaim the money they paid him due to a fender bender that in their view retroactively undoes the documented injuries he sustained during his career. Meanwhile, in the NFL Concussion Settlement, the NFL works its white-shoe lawyers overtime in finding ways to deny dementia compensation, even resorting to hiring private investigators to spy on claimants in order to detect some activity with which to dispute their diagnosis. One has to wonder, considering the considerable expense the NFL undertakes to discredit players if it doesn’t spend more money on lawyers and investigators than it would just to pay the claims. I guess it goes back to the owners’ incessant desire for control. While players with ALS have generally been approved for settlement claims without the endless audits and appeals that dementia claimants face, I was recently told by one wife of a player with ALS that she thought dealing with the nightmarish uncertainties of the claims process and its hiccups, red tape and delays has caused her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) an ailment common to combat veterans and victims of domestic violence.
It would seem the figurative spears and daggers of the modern-day Caesars who preside over this spectacle are no less excruciating than the literal weapons of their Roman predecessors. Perhaps they are even more so, considering the bearer inflicting cut after cut was for a time, considered to be a friend.
Advocacy for Fairness in Sports is a nonprofit dedicated to investigative sports journalism.
Please help us to continue bringing the stories that no one else is reporting by making a small contribution toward our operating costs. Court documents aren’t free, and you can be a difference-maker by helping us to meet the expenses necessary to remain ad-free and provide the coverage you’ve come to expect over the past three years.