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The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

One former football player signed away nearly two-thirds of the $1 million he expected to receive under the terms of the NFL's landmark concussion settlement.

Others, desperate for money to pay medical bills, have fallen prey to companies offering speculative loans with interest rates as high as 100 percent.

And hundreds more have been targeted by fellow retirees paid to recruit them for law firms seeking a larger cut of a pool of money that could top more than $1 billion.

Such deceptive and predatory practices have plagued the implementation this year of the NFL's historic deal to compensate its former players for the long-term effects of repeated head injuries. And if they are not stopped, a lawyer for the class of more than 20,000 eligible players told a federal judge Tuesday, thousands of former football stars could be deprived of money they sorely need to pay for costs of medical treatment.

"This has been a hard-fought settlement, and the last thing I want to see is to watch these awards be cannibalized," said attorney Christopher Seeger, one of the key lawyers responsible for negotiating the concussion settlement with the NFL.

In an unusual hearing in federal court in Philadelphia, Seeger detailed the findings of a monthslong investigation into the feeding frenzy that has erupted among businesses seeking to profit off payouts owed to retired football players grappling with long-term neurological maladies.

He asked U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, the judge overseeing the settlement, for more time to continue his probe before making recommendations on what steps the court should take in response, including the possibility of a criminal investigation.

Among the conclusions Seeger presented Tuesday:

Unscrupulous dealings are not uncommon in class-action cases involving big legal settlements, but the NFL's former players — many dealing with the effects of brain damage — may be particularly susceptible to offers that are too good to be true, Seeger and cocounsel TerriAnne Benedetto said.

Brody already has taken steps to push back against some deceptive dealings, ordering in April that one company — NFL Players Brains Matter run by former Houston Oilers running back Fred Willis — stop distributing "improper communications" to players.

She also has left open the possibility of canceling agreements between these companies and any players they have enlisted.

"This is of great concern because many claimants may be suffering from significant cognitive impairment," she said in court Tuesday.

But some middlemen singled out for scrutiny by Seeger defended the services they offered.

Brandon Siler, a former linebacker who played six seasons with the San Diego Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs, now runs a company named Legacy Pro Sports and said he is providing valuable assistance by guiding retired players through a difficult and confusing claims process.

Siler declined to comment outside the courtroom Tuesday, but told the Associated Press this week: "I don't mislead. I don't take advantage of my guys. I am there for them."

As Seeger described it, Siler's company, which began as a broker to help players file disability claims with the NFL, shifted focus almost entirely after the approval of the concussion settlement toward recruiting players who would be eligible for a payout.

In exchange for a 10 percent cut of whatever award the company's clients ultimately might receive, Siler and his firm would refer players to a law firm to handle their claims. Those lawyers would take another 10 to 15 percent cut, while in some cases money also would go to other former football players whom Siler had hired to recruit their peers.

Siler's company also cold-called league retirees to garner more signups and touted that they could help players "beat the tests" to appear more disabled than they actually are, Benedetto said. Former New York Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik sets up to pass during an NFL game against the New Orleans Saints in 1978.

Pisarcik, the former quarterback, who now resides in Mount Laurel, N.J., signed a more than $200,000 deal with two law firms seeking to use his name in letters and emails aimed at signing up retirees. He acknowledged in a recent deposition that the language used in those correspondences was "misleading," Benedetto said.

"This a situation I'd rather not comment on now," Pisarcik said Tuesday when contacted after the hearing. "I worked for these attorneys for about a month and then I resigned from them. Obviously, I wasn't happy and I got out of there."

His lawyer Christopher A. Tinari said Pisarcik was "aggressively pursu[ing] his options" against any law firms that may have inappropriately used his name without his consent.

For their part, lawyers for the NFL said Tuesday they would support any effort to limit abuse of the settlement process.

"To the extent that there are others that are trying to put that money into their pockets, that is something that is anathema to everything the NFL is trying to accomplish with this settlement," attorney Bruce Birenboim said.

The concussion settlement, which opened for registration in January, resolved thousands of lawsuits that accused the NFL of hiding what it knew about the risks of repeated concussions. It compensates on a sliding scale former players who have Lou Gehrig's disease, dementia, and other neurological problems, with maximum awards of $5 million going to the sickest players and their families.

NFL auditors estimate that more than 6,000 retirees are eligible to collect an average payment of $190,000. Lawyers said Tuesday that since the settlement was opened in January more than 1,200 claims had been filed and $130 million in payouts approved.

"Nothing is more important to the NFL ... than making sure everything is aboveboard and that deserving former players receive their money," Birenboim said.

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