The beginning of the end of Zeke Motta’s football career came at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., in December 2013, when he ran downfield to cover a kickoff for the Atlanta Falcons. Two blockers from the Packers slammed him to the ground, and he briefly lost consciousness.
He had a fracture of the C1 vertebra that sits at the base of the skull and holds the head upright. Two surgeries later, doctors told Motta, then 24, it was too risky to keep playing.
That was when his physical problem also became a financial one — a common story for hundreds of former N.F.L. players who have been injured on the field, especially early in their careers. Because Motta was a rookie when he was hurt, he was ineligible for a pension or post-career health care. And his applications for disability benefits jointly administered by the league and union have been repeatedly denied.
Now 32, Motta said he’s “still trying to find my way.” He saved enough money from his brief professional career to buy a house, but the lingering physical effects of his injury have limited the kinds of work he can do.
“I spent my whole life playing football and working toward a dream,” Motta said. “Then only to find out that it’s just a business.”
This month, Damar Hamlin, the 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety, went into cardiac arrest and was revived on the field during a prime-time N.F.L. game. His collapse shocked a national TV audience and highlighted the potentially grave danger of playing football.
In only his second year, Hamlin had not met the threshold of three years for a pension and other critical benefits. The spotlight on his case almost guarantees that the N.F.L. and the Bills will ensure that he is taken care of if he does not play again. But Motta and hundreds of other players whose young careers were derailed by injuries are often less fortunate. They leave the game with damaged bodies and mixed job prospects, and some struggle to get the help they need.
“The world’s collective heart is pouring itself out for Hamlin, but the main point is there are a lot of journeymen players who leave the league with serious problems,” said Michael LeRoy, who teaches sports labor law at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “People assume the players are taken care of. But the N.F.L. loves you until you’re injured and then you’re somebody else.”
Belinda Lerner, the head of N.F.L. Player Benefits and Retired Player Programs, said the league has expanded benefits and retroactively given pensions to former players who didn’t qualify before.
‘Pain Has Just Become Part of My Life’
The benefits players are eligible for if they get hurt and leave the game are agreed to by the N.F.L. and the players’ union. The league pulls in about $18 billion in annual revenue, and player salaries and benefits are funded by the players’ share of that pot, with the union and league deciding how to divide it.
Benefits are particularly important in the N.F.L., where unlike in the N.B.A. and M.L.B., teams customarily don’t offer players fully guaranteed contracts.
Retired N.F.L. players receive five years of health insurance, but only if they vest by reaching their third season. (The average career length for N.F.L. players is less than four years.) When the players pushed to extend the health coverage during talks in 2011, team owners argued that the cost should have to come out of the players’ share of revenue, which is currently about 48 percent.
Reducing their salaries was a trade the players were unwilling to make, said Domonique Foxworth, a retired N.F.L. cornerback and a former president of the players’ union.
“A roomful of 20-somethings who are playing football are not looking to have their earnings depressed because of lifetime health care,” Foxworth said.
Whether or not Hamlin tries to return to football, his contract underscores how little young players earn relative to the league’s stars even as they remain one injury away from losing their jobs.
Drafted in the sixth round in 2021, Hamlin signed a four-year, $3.6 million rookie deal that paid him $660,000 the first year and $825,000 the second, the minimum salaries set in the collective bargaining agreement. The average N.F.L. salary is above $2 million, and the league’s stars earn well into eight figures per season.
Hamlin’s contract included a standard provision that would cut his salary in half if he was placed on injured reserve, but the union and the league worked out a deal for him to be paid the full amount. If Hamlin doesn’t return to the field next season, he can still recoup his entire $940,000 salary as part of an injury-protection benefit that was expanded in the last labor agreement.
There are various resources designed to fill the gaps for unvested players, including the union’s hardship fund and a hospital network across N.F.L. cities where players can get annual checkups and other care at no cost. But in a sport in which careers can end on a single play and leave players with long-lasting effects, they are often not enough.
All injured players can apply for a Line of Duty benefit, a category of disability. Players who are approved receive at least $4,500 per month, or $54,000 a year, for 7.5 years.
“It’s basically an injury severance,” said Paul Scott, who worked at the N.F.L. Player Benefits Disability Plan before starting Benefits Huddle, which helps players file claims.
As an administrator at the plan until 2016, Scott fielded calls from players applying for benefits, so he knew firsthand the difficulty in getting approved for them. Scott said only about half their applications for the Line of Duty benefit were approved at the time. The union declined to say what the approval rate is now.
About $320 million will be paid this year to the nearly 3,200 former players receiving some form of disability benefits, according to the union. “We advocate for a fair process to ensure all players are treated equally when they apply,” the union said in a statement.
Motta, so far, is among those applicants who have been denied by the disability board.
Motta was so eager to play that day at Lambeau Field that he had his broken right hand wrapped into a club and was given Toradol before the game to mute his pain.
After the collision that fractured his vertebra, Motta was still dazed when he was sent back onto the field to fill in for a starting safety who had left the game with a concussion. He didn’t feel pain in his neck until after the game, when he struggled to remove his pads. Only after Motta participated in practices and started the next game did the team send him for magnetic resonance imaging of his spine.
Motta said his application for the Line of Duty benefit has been denied based on the disability plan’s point system.
“Because there’s not too many players that come through with a fractured C1 vertebra, they don’t really know how to evaluate the symptoms of that,” he said. “I have neuropathy, tingling, stiffness, headaches. Pain has just become part of my life.”
Motta received workers’ compensation and sued members of the Falcons’ medical staff over the handling of his injury (the suit was resolved out of court). Sitting at a desk in a customer service job made his pain worse, so he now teaches Qigong, a Chinese mind-body practice, and works as a free-dive instructor. He will meet with a doctor next month to make a final appeal to the disability board.
Even for Injured, Benefits Can Be Out of Reach
Fifteen years before Hamlin’s collapse, Kevin Everett, a former Bills tight end, suffered a spinal-cord injury in the opening game of the 2007 season, his third in the league. Initially paralyzed from the neck down, Everett became vested by spending that season on injured reserve, and he was approved for the highest tier of total and permanent disability benefits, which are now worth $265,000 a year.
Unvested players can apply for total and permanent disability but must meet rigorous criteria to qualify. While it’s unclear what support Hamlin may need, Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president of football operations, has promised he will “get the resources necessary” to live “a complete life.”
But this ad hoc approach raises questions of equity. Many unvested players who quietly leave the N.F.L. because of career-ending injuries are left largely to fend for themselves.
In 1981, Kenny Blair, who joined the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted rookie, was injured in training camp. When he jumped to catch a pass, a defender hit him in the chest helmet-first, breaking his sternum and sending him into cardiac arrest. Blair spent weeks in a hospital and had a metal plate put in his chest.
To collect his last paycheck, Blair said, he had to sign a letter that turned out to be his release. He never played a game in the league.
Blair does not recall anyone telling him how to apply for benefits, and he was ineligible for a pension or other retiree benefits. He became a high school football coach and still suffers from vertigo and nerve and visual problems.
“It was dirty for them to cut me with an injury like that,” he said. “All I wanted to do was play football.”
Cameron Clark, an offensive lineman drafted by the Jets in the fourth round in 2020, collided with a teammate during practice in his second training camp and collapsed. He lost feeling in his entire body, except for his right arm, for more than an hour. A specialist diagnosed him with a spinal-cord injury and told him that if he continued playing football, he risked being permanently paralyzed.
Forced to retire at 24, Clark applied for disability benefits but said he has been denied.
“My career ended due to an injury that happened in an N.F.L. facility,” Clark said. “I’m not looking for any handouts, but it’s a benefit that I earned through being an employee for the N.F.L. that I feel like I rightfully qualify for, that I was denied.”
Whether these players’ appeals are approved or not, the harsh reality that Hamlin’s injury has highlighted is unlikely to change.
“Nobody ever wants to see this happen again, for both humanitarian and business reasons,” said Nellie Drew, a sports law professor at the University at Buffalo. “He’s the poster child for what the N.F.L. does not want us thinking about, which is that the game is very, very dangerous.”
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