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Ravens Insider: ‘We’re standing up’: Former Ravens RB Willis McGahee pleased with latest ruling on NFL disability lawsuit


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Former Ravens running back Willis McGahee sometimes struggles to find the words.

“You don’t know how long you’re gonna be here or you don’t know when you can receive the proper healthcare that you need,” he told The Baltimore Sun in a Zoom interview last week. “It’s tough. I think about my kids more than anything. I wanna be here for my kids.”

In his darkest hours, McGahee, a two-time Pro Bowl selection whose career spanned 10 years, 151 games, 8,882 rushing yards, and more than a dozen surgeries across 10 seasons with four teams, said he contemplated taking his own life “a few times” given the physical and emotional burden the sport left on him.

But the 42-year-old is spurred on, he said, by his 10 children, one of whom, Willis McGahee IV, will play outside linebacker at Nebraska this fall. His spirits have also been lifted more in recent days, thanks to a court decision that could potentially allow him and other former players to receive the disability benefits that McGahee believes have long been owed by the NFL for injuries suffered during their careers.

A class-action lawsuit filed by 10 former players, including McGahee in February 2023 against the league’s disability board, which is based in Baltimore, is moving forward after the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled two weeks ago that it can proceed to discovery and trial, though not against Commissioner Roger Goodell or trustees individually because they were not accused of wrongdoing.

The lawsuit alleges that doctors in the plan are financially incentivized to deny disability claims. It also says that data shows a “disturbing pattern of erroneous and arbitrary benefits denials, bad faith contract misinterpretations and other unscrupulous tactics,” that include flagrant violations of federal law, according to lawyers Chris Seeger and Sam Katz. Other plaintiffs include Eric Smith, Jason Alford, Daniel Loper, Michael McKenzie, Jamize Olawale, Alex Parsons, Charles Sims, Joey Thomas and Lance Zeno.

The NFL disability plan, which came out of a 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the players and the union, has been touted as a way to help debilitated former players with claims that can lead to payments between $65,000 and $265,000. However, the plaintiffs’ lawyers say few players receive the top amount and many are denied disability benefits altogether.

For example, Katz cited a statistical example in which the board’s 14 highest-paid neuropsychologists all had a 100% denial rate in evaluations for permanent disability, while physicians in the program who had around a 25% success rate were paid significantly less.

The complaint also alleges that the board relied only on physicians’ conclusions and did not review all related material for claims, even though it consistently told players they’re required by law to review all of the evidence in the record.

“Willis has so many different impairments — physical, neurological, neurocognitive, psychological,” Katz told The Sun. “We based the claim not only off those things individually but the cumulative impact of all of his impairments together. … Despite multiple courts telling [the disability board] they have to do it, they’ve continued this unlawful practice of compartmentalizing and only considering impairments in silo with no one coming together and saying … Willis can’t work from all those things combined.”

One of the denials for McGahee, who lives in Miami, took place in Atlanta in 2016. Of the more than 37 exams done by that same neurologist on players, all were denied benefits, according to the complaint. And in McGahee’s most recent claim, in late 2022, he was denied again.

“My injuries, physical and mental, have gotten worse because of the disability board refusing to provide the proper benefits that I need,” McGahee told The Sun.

The NFL had no additional comment from the statement it issued last February when contacted by The Sun because of the ongoing litigation, though it has said it expected annual payouts for the disability plan to reach $330 million last year. The league has until May 24 to respond to the latest ruling.

The news of the judge’s decision brought a momentary smile to the face of McGahee, who suffered more than 40 injuries over a decade in the NFL that included four years with the Ravens from 2007 to 2010, during which he was knocked unconscious twice, including against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2009 AFC championship game. McGahee also said that other players have reached out to him in recent years, including one former Raven who “didn’t know where to turn” after multiple benefit denials left the player in a dark place.

What McGahee hopes to come out of the lawsuit, he said, is that the players show the NFL disability board that “we’re not pushovers, not going to take no for an answer.” They also hope to have doctors who their data alleges are not neutral removed from the program.

In the meantime, McGahee said he will continue to fight for what he believes is just, for himself and other players in the league past and present.

“I have my ups and downs. That’s everyday life,” he said. “But that we’re standing up to them shows that we have a lot of character amongst each other. We’re not gonna give up.”

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