Canadian Football League

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Former Canadian Football League player fights the NFL

Victor Washington played six years in the National Football League. Now he no longer can ride a bicycle.
The Plainfield High School legend, who resides in Phoenix, had knee replacement surgery in 1998. His hands, wracked with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, have been operated on three times. He has chronic pain in his back, shoulders and elbows. Even sleeping hurts.
Several doctors, including those appointed by the NFL, have verified Washington's ailments and diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Simply put, all the pain and its accompanying depression have rendered him disabled.
For the past 22 years, Washington has been petitioning the NFL to collect full disability. For the past 22 years, one of the richest sports leagues in the world has dodged his request like a shifty halfback. His plight went national last weekend, when The Wall Street Journal put it on the front page.
"We're like collateral damage in a war," Washington said via phone Wednesday. "I was mowed down but I had a hand waving, but they said, 'He'll die in a little while.' I may not be the man I was before, but I'm a human being."
Victor Washington is angry, and after hearing his story, you'll be angry, too.
A gladiator
Life never has been easy for Washington. The son of a 16-year-old single mother, he spent three years in an orphanage in Elizabeth. He found his niche on the football field, starring as a tailback at Plainfield -- graduating in 1965 -- and later the University of Wyoming.
At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Washington spent three years in the Canadian Football League before landing with the San Francisco 49ers. He prided himself on being a team-first guy and lined up at fullback, returned kicks and even played in the secondary at times. In 1972, he suffered a crack knee cap but kept playing and was voted to the Pro Bowl.
"I was a gladiator. I did everything the league asked me to do," he said. "When you played, you got shot up (with painkillers). That needle wore off after the game, and you went home in excruciating pain. You were in pain for the entire week, and then it came time to play and they shot you up again."
In the 1970s, football was harder on players' bodies. Pads were thinner. AstroTurf was prevalent -- Washington called it "rolled-over concrete." Treatment was far less sophisticated.
The bad knee forced him to retire in 1976. Hobbled and without health insurance, he moved in with his grandmother in South Plainfield. At his peak as a player, he was earning $50,000 per year. Nice money for the time, but a pittance compared to what first-stringers make today.
"They can afford Lloyds of London to insure their bodies. They can set up their own pension plan," Washington said. "What happened to all those guys who played from the 1950s to the 80s? Some of them are in nursing homes and some of them are at home crippled. That's why they're trying to bury me. The NFL does not want anyone to know what happened to Victor Washington."
A legal flea-flicker
Washington applied for disability benefits in 1983. The NFL awards $750 per month for non-football-related disabilities and $4,000 for football-related disabilities.
Incredibly, the league determined that Washington's problems were unrelated to football, pinning his stress disorder on his time in the orphanage. He got the $750.
Washington appealed, and in 1985 an arbitrator made a stunning decision against him.
Because the NFL defined football-related disability as the result of "a football injury" and Washington had "several" injuries, he wasn't eligible for the $4,000. It's an absurd parsing of words, but the NFL seized on it as policy.
It took 18 years and a lawsuit by another retired player for the courts to strike down this ridiculous interpretation. Last year, Washington finally filed his own lawsuit. In March, a federal judge ruled in his favor. The NFL is appealing.
"They wish I'd fall off the face of the earth, but right is right and wrong is wrong," Washington said. "I got hurt in the NFL; I didn't get hurt driving a truck. I got hurt playing one of the most violent games in the world. For them to tiptoe around and sensitize football like it's not violent is ridiculous."
Some facts provided by The Wall Street Journal bear repeating. The NFL makes $5.2 billion in annual revenue. Of the 7,561 former players eligible for disability, only 135 receive benefits and only 90 of those are classified as football-related.
Meanwhile, in 2003, the NFL paid $3.1 million in legal fees to defend its disability plan. The league also once paid a private investigator to tail Washington.
"I'm fighting 32 billionaires," Washington said of the league's owners. "They'll fight me into the ground instead of giving me what I'm due."
A light at the tunnel's end
Washington had been reluctant to take his story public. But private letters to NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw, Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell and other power brokers went unanswered.
The Wall Street Journal thrust this saga into the light, and the NFL looks creepy. At one point, the league's medical liaison says, as paraphrased by the Journal, "there is little credible research on whether football leads to serious medical problems later in life."
The whole thing smacks of Alice in Wonderland. The NFL peers into the looking glass and sees what it wants to see. Unfortunately, this is no book of fiction.
"Victor is a great guy who played his heart out for the NFL and they handed him the short end of the stick," said his lawyer, Susan Martin of the Phoenix-based firm Martin & Bonnett. "What they have done to him ruined his life. But his story is not that uncommon."
Washington, 59, no longer watches football. He would rather take his 8-year-old son, Victor Jr., to the local park. He's tired of fighting uphill. He doesn't want to be remembered like this. But he also understands the big picture. He knows what's at stake for a generation of ailing former players.
"I'm not a bug you can just squish and go on," he said. "As long as I'm breathing, I'm going to fight."


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