A recently retired NFL player filed a lawsuit Monday claiming that the league's disability plan withheld benefits for an injury caused by one of the helmet-to-helmet impacts the league has recently been trying to minimize.
Eric Shelton, who played one season as a Panthers running back in 2006, said in the lawsuit that the disability panel mishandled his claim for a permanent neck injury sustained on a helmet-to-helmet collision during Redskins training camp in 2008. He was awarded benefits for "degenerative" impairments that appear more than six or 12 months after an original injury, rather than the maximum benefit for injuries that cause immediate, permanent harm.
Similar to hundreds of workers' compensation cases awaiting resolution in California, Shelton's case could lead the league, through its recent acknowledgment of the neurological risks of NFL football, to encounter greater liability to players who worked in eras when the league disputed those risks.
"Talk is cheap — it's easy to put out posters and public-service announcements and levy fines for hits that occur on Sundays, but when a player is seriously injured on those hits, the league says something completely different," said Smith, 27.
Douglas Ell, the lead lawyer for the disability plan jointly run by the league and the players union, said in a statement Monday that Shelton was being appropriately compensated for his injury.
Shelton injured his spine on a helmet-to-helmet collision during an intrasquad scrimmage in July 2008 and has since been unable to work because of transient numbness, migraine headaches and other pain, the lawsuit said.
Shelton's claim for the highest benefit level — for players whose football-related injuries result in total and permanent disability within six or 12 months, rather than through a degenerative process that can take years — was denied in August by the plan's disability panel. That board consists of three representatives each from the league and the union and requires at least a four-of-six majority for a benefit.
The panel said that because Shelton had worked briefly at a Walgreens, his permanent disability did not arise within six to 12 months.
Letters from the plan indicate that it initially ruled Shelton's injuries to be unrelated to his football service — resulting in an even lower benefit payment — before that decision was reversed on appeal. Smith said that fit a pattern of retired players being denied benefits they deserve.
"Unless you're lying completely paralyzed on the field of play, they're going to fight you," he said.
Cowboys: Quarterback Tony Romo, out since Oct. 25 with a broken collarbone, threw soft passes during warmups. The target date for a return has been Dec. 25 at Arizona.
Jets: Right tackle Damien Woody missed practice because of a sprained right knee ligament but expects to play at New England on Monday.
Panthers: Running back DeAngelo Williams, 27, speaking for the first time since going on injured reserve Nov. 17 with a right foot injury, said he wants to stay in Carolina, where he holds career and single-season franchise rushing records.
Raiders: Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had an MRI to determine the damage to his right (throwing) shoulder that was reinjured Sunday. The Contra Costa Times said Gradkowski, a former Buc, expected bad news.
Rams: Rookie tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is out four to six weeks with a high right ankle sprain sustained Sunday.
Steelers: The NFL rejected linebacker James Harrison's appeals of a $75,000 fine for a hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and a $20,000 fine for a helmet-first hit into Saints quarterback Drew Brees' back.
Titans: Quarterback Vince Young, who is out for the season, tweeted that he was about to have right thumb surgery and asked for prayers.