NFL Player with Dementia Has Benefits Revoked; NFl and Vegas – NFL Plays Both Sides; Goodell – No Gambling


dwight harrison

Michael Rosenberg>VIEWPOINT

by Michael Rosenberg

‘Permanently disabled’, Harrison fighting for benefits NFL took away


Dwight Harrison played 10 years in the NFL and now suffers from dementia, but he has been repeatedly denied benefits from the NFL that he feels he deserves.  Dwight Harrison played in the NFL for 10 years. Recently, he was terrified of a phone call.

“I was up all night,” he told me, “scared to death. At times, I can’t even speak. I’m afraid to talk to you.”

I am not in the habit of scaring people to death. But Harrison worried he would say the wrong thing. He worried I wouldn’t believe him, which is understandable. His story is so absurd, so unfair, that it sounds like a sick joke. But it is not a joke. It is Harrison’s life. And here is what happened:

Harrison requested higher disability pay from his NFL retirement plan.

The plan’s trustees said no … and took away his entire pension.

Then they charged him for legal fees.

Now Harrison lives alone in Beaumont, Texas, in what he calls “a little FEMA house,” because a hurricane wiped out his other one. He is 65. He is on Medicaid now. He is still fighting for the money, and the acknowledgment that he deserves it. But it is not a fair fight. After too many hits to the head, his brain flickers on and off.

“My situation … sometimes it’s bright, sometimes it’s dim, and sometimes the light don’t come on at all,” said Harrison, who in his 10-year career from 1971 to ’80 played for the Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Colts and Denver Broncos. “I can’t sometimes keep my thoughts. Forgive me, please.”

The night before our first talk a few months ago, Harrison’s light went on, and he wanted to take advantage of it. He grabbed a recorder that he keeps on a small table next to his old standard-definition television and spoke his thoughts. The next day, a few minutes after he mustered the courage to answer my call, he placed his recorder next to the phone and pushed PLAY.


We will let the trustees of the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan begin this story. The year was 1993.

There are six trustees on the board at any given time: Three that represent owners, and three that ostensibly represent players. Former players have long grumbled that the board is more interested in protecting owners and the union than helping former players.

Former Bears star Dave Duerson was appointed by the union but publicly doubted that former players were suffering because of football hits. Duerson later committed suicide and was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease commonly linked to concussions. His tragic story seems to epitomize the NFL’s concussion problem: Denial for too long, until it was too late.

But in 1993, the trustees examined Harrison’s medical records and determined he was “totally and permanently disabled.”

We repeat: The trustees said Harrison was “totally and permanently disabled.”

They awarded him a $1,729 monthly disability benefit. They also determined that Harrison had been disabled since Jan. 1, 1984, and awarded him a lump sum of $184,756 in retroactive benefits.

Still, Harrison felt he deserved more. He had good reasons to believe that. The retirement plan featured four tiers of “total and permanent disability” benefits, depending mostly on how a player was disabled. The trustees put him on the lowest tier. They determined that, while Harrison clearly had serious medical problems, they did not result from playing in the NFL. He disagreed, and his wife sent a letter to the board asking them to reconsider.

In 1994, the trustees again acknowledged Harrison’s “total and permanent disability,” at age 45 … but they would not give him more money. Instead, they informed him that his “disorder has its origin in an incident that occurred while you were playing college football, not League football.” They also said that his depression was “of recent origin”.

Yes, the trustees tied Harrison’s health problems to his life before and after his NFL career … but said he was not damaged during his career.

SI VAULT: Wives and girlfriends often bear the burden of caring for suffering former NFL players

How did they reach this conclusion? In part, they used Harrison’s honesty against him. He had told at least one doctor he was traumatized seeing a teammate suffer a broken neck and paralysis his senior year at Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). That allowed the trustees to trace his problems to his college career, instead of his NFL career.

And of course, it’s reasonable to assume that his memory loss, depression and diminished cognitive function got worse after he retired. That enabled the trustees to say his depression was “of recent origin”.

Still, there was no debate about his disabilities. Two doctors had confirmed them — and one of them was appointed by the retirement plan, not by Harrison. The only dispute was what caused him to be disabled.

Harrison appealed. And this is when his case and his savings began to disintegrate.

The trustees argued that he failed to appear for a psychiatrist’s examination, failed to respond to requests for counsel, then failed to appear for another examination. The trustees alleged that when a process server approached Harrison, Harrison drove away quickly, did not stop and kept shaking his head, trying to lose the process server.

They said he did not provide financial information. They said he participated in activities that “include socializing with college football teammates at a team reunion, direct participation in real estate transactions and other business activities.” They claim he was trying to run a rodeo out of his backyard. They say witnesses described him as a “businessman” who was “interested in anything to make money.” They said he missed appointments with their doctors. He also missed two court hearings.

They denied his appeal and suspended his benefits.

Then they filed a counterclaim to recoup everything they had paid him.

In 1994, the trustees again acknowledged Harrison’s “total and permanent disability,” at age 45 … but they would not give him more money. Instead, they informed him that his “disorder has its origin in an incident that occurred while you were playing college football, not League football.”  The trustees could have denied his request for more money and kept him on the lowest tier. Instead, they basically called him a crook. In 1996, three years after their chosen doctor wrote a withering report detailing Harrison’s maladies, the trustees determined that Harrison was “not now totally and permanently disabled.”

That makes it sound like Harrison suddenly got healthy, or had been faking it the whole time. Harrison says now that he never received the notices that the trustees sent him. He says communication broke down when his court-appointed attorney left the case. Harrison, who never graduated from college, represented himself in court.

Why would a man ask for increase in disability pay, then hide from the people who can give it to him? The trustees and their lawyers did not seem to consider that a man with serious mental and physical ailments might miss a few appointments.

The trustees argued that Harrison was “unjustly enriched” by $236,626 — every last dollar they had paid him. Because Harrison failed to show up in court, the trustees won a default judgment against him. Harrison was ordered to return all his disability payments, along with $99,112.50 in legal fees.

The total default judgment against Harrison (including interest) was $352,252.06.

Harrison’s average annual NFL salary: $49,750.

It got worse. Harrison also had a pension, which is separate from disability pay. The trustees determined that his pension was worth $130,528, and they successfully offset that against the money he suddenly owed them. So they took his pension.

Harrison sued to get his money back. He had another court-appointed attorney, who resigned. Harrison represented himself again. He knew what was happening was wrong, but he did not understand the legal arguments against it. He was not capable of arguing that his pension should have been exempt from any judgments against him, according to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. He just attached a copy of his original complaint and stated his case.

A magistrate judge said his motion “simply relies on his pleadings, and therefore is insufficient.”

In 2003, the NFL started giving Harrison retirement benefits again. But that was apparently an accident. In 2007, they cut him off again.

Then, in 2011, when the NFL and the Players Association signed a new collective bargaining agreement, they created a $620 million Legacy Fund for players who retired before 1993. The NFL proudly announced that every player who retired before 1993 would receive at least $600 per month, “regardless of the form of benefit”. It doesn’t matter if the player is disabled or healthy, wealthy or poor.

Harrison received a form letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying he was entitled to Legacy Fund payments. By the league’s calculation, a player with Harrison’s experience should have received $1,144 per month from the Legacy Fund. But in 2012 the trustees voted to offset Harrison’s Legacy money against the default judgment. So there went his Legacy Fund benefit.

“I had a little faith in the legal system,” Harrison said, “and it just crapped on me.”

Harrison’s current lawyer, Jeffrey Dahl, argues that the trustees had no legal right to touch Harrison’s pension, and he is fighting to have it restored. But attorneys for the retirement plan wrote in a court filing last summer that Harrison has “unquestionably already received more than his fair share of benefits.” They also wrote: “Harrison’s first lawsuit against the Plan nearly 20 years ago exposed him as a fraud.”

A fraud?

Dwight Harrison?

“I’m not a doctor,” Harrison says. “If you’re going to accuse anybody of fraud, charge them, not me.”

Yes, the doctors. Harrison gave me access to his medical records but asked me not to quote them directly out of respect for his privacy. They tell a thorough and heartbreaking version of the horror story you have heard about other retired NFL players: post-concussion syndrome, memory loss and … well, one thing Harrison still has left is pride. He asked me not to go into detail. But I can say this: The records are extremely detailed, and they are painful to read.

The trustees have decided that when several doctors diagnose a man with mental problems, including memory loss, and that man misses a few appointments, he is a “fraud” who doesn’t deserve any benefits or his pension. And if that man has dementia now, he should apply for benefits elsewhere.  Six doctors have reached the same conclusion about Harrison, independent of each other. The first was in 1993. The most recent was in 2008. And in some cases, the doctor was a neutral psychologist chosen with the approval of the trustees.

Also, in 2008, the Social Security Administration confirmed their findings and said his condition was “due to head injury.”

It’s a pretty convincing case … unless you really, really don’t want to be convinced.


So what is the NFL’s response to all this? Well, Mike Miller, the Director of NFL Player Benefits, did not return several calls. The three current league-appointed trustees (executives Ted Phillips of the Bears, Dick Cass of the Ravens, and Katie Blackburn of the Bengals) referred me to the Groom Law Group, counsel to the plan.

Doug Ell, an attorney with Groom, repeated via email his contention that the plan “has been subjected to both fraud and frivolous litigation by Mr. Harrison.”

I asked Ell about the six doctors who have examined Harrison, including at least one who was appointed by the league. Did Harrison dupe them?

Ell’s response: “I do not know what doctor reports you refer to, when they were written, or what they say.”

I sent Ell a 45-page file of medical records — which, of course, has been in the record of the case. I asked again if he thinks Harrison duped the doctors.

In his response, Ell did not answer that question or even acknowledge the medical records. Instead, he wrote that Harrison lost benefits because he did not take a medical exam.

“Mr. Harrison was explicitly and repeatedly warned of it, and a federal judge even ordered him to attend, and he refused to do so,” Ell wrote.

Ell also wrote: “There is a very generous benefit plan for former NFL Players who have dementia. It is called the ’88 Plan. You might encourage Mr. Harrison to seek those benefits.”

Why would Ell suggest that Harrison apply for the ’88 plan, when his firm has argued in court filings, for many years, that Harrison does not have dementia?

Ell’s response: “I do not know whether Mr. Harrison currently has dementia. If he does, there are generous benefits. I do not understand why he would not seek those benefits if he does have dementia.”

Dahl, Harrison’s lawyer, is skeptical about getting ’88 Plan benefits, because the trustees have declared he is no longer a participant in the NFL retirement plan.

To sum up: The trustees have decided that when several doctors diagnose a man with mental problems, including memory loss, and that man misses a few appointments, he is a “fraud” who doesn’t deserve any benefits or his pension. And if that man has dementia now, he should apply for benefits elsewhere. After all, the trustees are tired of his “frivolous” actions.

The trustees convinced courts they were right, but Harrison was severely under-lawyered. They have taken a few anecdotes about Harrison trying to conduct business, meeting with college teammates and failing to show up for doctor’s exams and court appointments, and used them to punish him for two decades.


How do you measure what is left of a broken man?

Harrison’s memories are scattered like leaves on a windy day. He recalls watching game film as a player and not remembering that he played in the game. Sometimes he does not even remember all of his injuries.

Harrison was 44 when this fight began. He is 65 now. His battle for benefits has lasted twice as long as his NFL career. He could have lived a more comfortable life, with better medical care, if the NFL had not cut off the payments he deserved.

For Harrison, the pain cuts deeper than the money he lost. The trustees have essentially told him that his life did not happen the way he says it happened.

“They’ve got it in there that I am a fraudulent person,” he says, and is there a worse charge than that?

“Why?” Harrison asked me. “Why in the world are they treating us so bad? You are dealing with some evil people.”

He knows that his only hope is through the legal system. But he is worried about showing up in court and hearing the trustees and their lawyers call him a fraud.

“I don’t know if I could take it,” he says. “You ruined my life.”

I didn’t realize it when I called, but this story will remove another piece of Dwight Harrison. The stress of defending himself overwhelmed him.

“I’m not going to give another interview,” he said. “It was just too much.”


Read More:


playing both sides

Vegas and the NFL: How the league plays both sides

By Matt Hayes The Sporting News


LAS VEGAS — We’ve seen how the NFL paints the dirty little secret, the one that may not be so dirty after all.

By the end of this weekend, sports books in this town expect to surpass a handle of $100 million on Super Bowl Sunday, making it the single-greatest day in sports gambling history. A seminal moment for the gaming industry and another awkward pause for the NFL’s billion-dollar industry.

While commissioner Roger Goodell has spent years publicly keeping sports wagering at arm’s length, its impact on the game is undeniable.

“If they wanted to stop gambling, they’d stop the injury report,” says legendary Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro. “They’d also not have as lucrative a television deal.”

Or if the NFL wanted  to stop gambling, they’d demand television partners eliminate the betting line from all graphics — or lose rights to the games. Yet there it is, day after day on the ESPN crawl on the bottom of your living room flat screen, screaming at you, pulling you in.

Look, there’s a reason when you hit that the first tag on the home page is Fantasy Football. There’s no money involved, no hint of gambling. But you’re utterly naive if you think those who use that service — or any fantasy service — aren’t also adding the critical component of cash (league fees, trade fees, etc.) to the equation.

There, screaming at you from the Fantasy page on “injury analysis.”

How ironic. The very thing Goodell has spoken out against is the one thing that makes his wildly successful product stronger with each passing season. While Goodell has spoken in the past about the NFL’s “integrity” and how the league must steer clear of gambling connections to eliminate any nefarious actions — or even the thought of it (see: players fixing games) — movement behind the scenes tells another story.

Once the confetti has fallen at MetLife Stadium late Sunday night; once a packed house at more than $1,000-a-head trudges through the sub-freezing temperatures of suburban New Jersey after a new NFL champion has been crowned and the NFL wraps up another hand-over-fist, money-making season, a little-known contract will have expired.

Two years ago, the NFL approved limited casino advertising for teams. That’s right, although the league’s official list of prohibited advertising categories includes “gambling-related advertising,” the league allowed individual clubs to accept casino ads in game programs, on limited signs at stadiums and on local radio stations.

How did the league get around its own prohibitions, you ask? Signage in the stadium could only be from casinos without sports books and could not contain “images of slot machines, dice, cards or a shot of the Strip and casinos, but could contain images of golf, swimming pools and performers.”

Hey, everyone, come to Vegas to golf and swim and watch David Copperfield! Wink, wink.

One television industry insider told Sporting News the NFL this offseason could further relax the league’s standards on casino advertising — where “each team makes millions” — or at the very least go another two years with the current setup.

“Why wouldn’t they?” the source said. “It’s the perfect setup. You publicly decry it while you privately reap the rewards from it.”

Football (college and professional) is by far the biggest attraction at sports books. Of the nearly $4 billion bet annually, more than half that is bet on football.

If you don’t think television advertisers know this; if you don’t think the NFL and its financial team know this, you’re kidding yourself. They not only know it, they sell it.

Meanwhile, the league continues to charge Vegas casinos to carry the live feed of games in their sports books. Just like it did nearly two decades ago when television wasn’t remotely the money-making beast it is today; when the NFL couldn’t sell each and every one of its games and didn’t have its own television network. When everyone simply received two or three games a week.

That is, unless you were part of the fortunate few that had the first satellite dishes; those 8-foot monsters in the backyards of the well-to-do. And, of course, in Vegas casinos.

It is here where we introduce Rich Baccellieri, who at 22 was a supervisor at the Caesars Palace sports book and realized early on the importance of the NFL. The 49ers were a seven-point favorite over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, and pro gambler Billy Baxter walked into Caesars and threw $100,000 on the counter to bet on the Bengals.

The 49ers won, 20-16.

“The NFL can’t be too much against gambling when in the late 1980s, when the Nevada casinos were getting free feeds from satellite dishes, the NFL said you guys have to pay for that,” said Baccellieri, a member of The Linemakers (a Sporting News partner) and currently spokesman for Stadium Technology Group. “They could have said, it’s illegal to bet on games. Instead, they said you owe us a fee. It’s hypocritical. They’re not against gambling, they’re against not making money.”

And against anything that remotely makes the connection between the NFL and sports gaming.

Last year during his annual state of the league address, Goodell spent nearly an hour discussing the NFL’s state of affairs. He focused on player safety and player discipline off the field, and about everything from minority hiring to team relocation and 18-game schedules.

He said nearly 6,000 words. Not one was related to gambling or the advertising deal set to expire at the end of the 2013 season.

This brings us to Vinnie Magliulo, another member of The Linemakers group and a longtime sports book manager. After more than two decades running a book, Magliulo moved to parimutuel betting as the vice president of the Las Vegas Dissemination Company, but for years lived the unique relationship between the NFL and Vegas.

“Tuesday night we had the State of the Union Address, and if I were to ask a group of 100 people if they watched, how many would say yes?” Magliulo said. “Let’s go high. Let’s say 50. You ask those same 100 people who’s going to win the Super Bowl, and you’re going to get 150 answers.”

Just not the one the NFL wants to hear.

If there’s money on it, anyway.



no gambling allowed 14

Goodell: NFL’s opposition to legalized sports gambling isn’t changing

by Mike Wilkening on January 31, 2014

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell affirmed Friday that the league remains committed to opposing further legalization of sports gambling.

“As you know, we fought legalized gambling, sports gambling, for a long time, most recently here in New Jersey, and I would see our position in the same vein going forward,” Goodell said.

Goodell’s response stemmed from a question about the league’s support of fantasy football and distaste for sports betting.

“We don’t put fantasy football in that category at all,” Goodell said, referring to gambling.

Goodell relayed a story of a father and teenage daughter bonding over fantasy football and playing in the same league.

“Fantasy has a way of people engaging more with football, and they do it in a fun, friendly, in this case, a family manner,” Goodell said.

Sports betting is legal in four states, most notably Nevada. Just short of $99 million was legally wagered in Nevada on last year’s Super Bowl, according to the state’s gaming control board.

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