BOSTON — As the football world absorbs Monday’s news that Dave Duerson had the football-related brain damage he suspected before fatally shooting himself in February, an overlooked detail has emerged: had Duerson reached out for help via the N.F.L.’s disability plan, which he helped administer, his neurological injuries would not have qualified for a high level of benefit, if any at all.
The disability program jointly run by the league and the players union gives its “football degenerative” award for total and permanent disability, up to $110,000 per year, for injuries deemed related to football that arise within 15 years of a player’s retirement.
Anything that manifests itself later receives no more than $40,000, and players with neurological impairments have had difficulty getting that.
Duerson, an All-Pro safety for three teams over 11 seasons, had been retired for 17 years when he committed suicide Feb. 17. He shot himself in the chest rather than his head, and asked in a note that his brain be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma.
Researchers at Boston University confirmed Monday that he had the disease, which is linked to the type of memory loss, impaired judgment and depression of which Duerson complained.
The circumstances rekindled debate over football safety issues, including how the league’s disability plan handles latent work-related cognitive problems like Duerson’s.
One of six trustees who voted on claims since 2006, Duerson told a Senate subcommittee hearing in 2007 that he questioned whether mental decline was related to football.
Whether he changed his mind before his suicide — when he appeared to connect his condition to football — is not known.
Another question beginning to circle among retired players whose claims were denied during Duerson’s tenure is whether they can refile given his admitted impairment. Board votes are not disclosed to applicants or to the public.
John Hogan, a lawyer for dozens of players in disability matters, said that he might request an audit by the United States Department of Labor to see how Duerson voted on claims.
“He had to exercise a high degree of care, skill, prudence and diligence — the C.T.E. findings, coupled with his suicide, certainly raise the question of whether he was capable of properly fulfilling those duties as is required in such an important undertaking,” Hogan said.
“It therefore calls into question the possibility that some or all of the decisions he made when passing on disability claims are suspect, and perhaps invalid.”
Douglas Ell, the plan’s lead lawyer, said in an e-mail Tuesday that votes were typically unanimous, meaning Duerson’s was not a crucial vote. To the extent that a 4-to-2 vote for denial or a 3-to-3 tie could be grounds to examine Duerson’s decision, Ell said that he knew of no case where “if Dave’s vote were disregarded, the outcome would have been different.”
Ell also said, “Despite whatever impairments Dave may have experienced at different times, he still demonstrated mental sharpness far in excess of the average person.”
Pete Kendall, a recently retired lineman with a longtime interest in players’ disability issues, said: “It’s certainly an interesting question. At what point might he have been impaired, and at what point might he have made a decision that he might not have or shouldn’t have?”
Regardless, Duerson could never award “football degenerative” benefits to a player retired more than 15 years because of how the league and union negotiated terms of the plan in 2006. The best players can hope for is $40,000 in “inactive” disability benefits, if they are totally and permanently disabled.
That benefit has been difficult to receive, retired players have complained, particularly in the cases of cognitive impairment. Soon after choosing Duerson as one of the union’s three representatives on the disability board, the former union chief Gene Upshaw said, “I just don’t believe” that mental decline is related to football — and therefore compensable at all.
Until December 2009, the N.F.L.’s official position on players’ cognitive decline and dementia also was that no scientific link with football had been established. And even after the league acknowledged the relationship, one of its outside lawyers in disability matters, Larry Lamade, wrote in a memo to Ell last year that while orthopedic impairments can be ascribed to football activities, “this is not the state of scientific and medical research at the present time regarding concussions and neurologic impairments.”
The league spokesman Greg Aiello responded to questions about that memo in an e-mail, saying, “The league does not impose any views on the retirement board.” Ell did not respond to a request for comment on that memo specifically.
Ell did earlier write in an e-mail, “I should note that I do not know of a single disability plan in the corporate world that pays benefits when a former employee first becomes unable to work decades after leaving employment, so over all I think the system is amazingly generous.”
Some industries have had to grapple with how employees develop work-related diseases long after leaving the workplace, most notably construction workers exposed to asbestos. Workers’ compensation cases in California are currently testing the application of that model to professional football players.
The N.F.L. and its players union have for four years reimbursed families of players with full-blown dementia up to $88,000 for medical expenses, through a program known as the 88 Plan.
Two weeks ago, the N.F.L. executive Adolpho Birch said that the league had pursued “improving 88 benefits” and “easing the qualifications for disability” in negotiations with the union for a new collective bargaining agreement, but stopped short of details.
DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the decertified players union, said in a telephone interview Monday that he would not comment on those discussions, given current litigation to resolve the league’s lockout of players.