By Terry Foster
This isn’t just about attorney fees and notoriety for Livonia based labor attorney Jim Acho. He wants to help friends and heroes as he prepares dozens of former NFL players for settlements in an upcoming class action settlement against the NFL for retired players struggling with their health.
Concussions and CTE is a big issue in the NFL these days and Acho has compiled a list of big names that he represents, which include Hall of Famers Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears, former Lion cornerback Lem Barney and punter Tom Skladany who played for the Lions and Philadelphia Eagles.
Acho represents about 24 players that played in the 1960s and 1970s who were screened for CTE and other neurological disorders caused by playing in the NFL. Last spring, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania approved the settlement. According to NFLconcussionsettlement.com, players do not have to prove their injuries were caused by the NFL.
The average player could receive about $190,000, although more could be doled out for players diagnosed with Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease. A total of $800 million is earmarked for the settlement, but $150 million goes to Medicare for reimbursement and another $150 million to the attorneys.
The remaining $500 million is put into a trust fund and each player files an individual claim that is presented to a three-doctor panel agreed upon by the NFL and the players. The holdup is that a group, led by former player Joe DeLamiellieure, doesn’t believe enough money is being earmarked for an estimated 8,000 players expected to file claims.
“Everyone that advances in age has simple memory loss,” Acho said. “These players have substantial impairment in their ability to function. The amount of money these guys are going to receive is a drop in the bucket in terms of what they should receive.”
Some attorneys are charging a 33 percent commission. Acho dropped his fee to 20 percent.
“I have been very close to people like Lem Barney,” he said. “I don’t just consider myself to be his attorney but he is a friend. I did not want them taken advantage of by the mega law firms that signed thousands of players and shuffle them off to unknown entities. I want to make sure they get one on one service that an attorney should provide their client. I just thought a third (in fees) was gouging. Usually in worker’s compensation an attorney gets 15 percent and I thought this was closer to worker’s comp than personal injury.”
Acho ran for NFLPA executive director last year but did not win. He also created the “88 Plan” that helps retired players with dementia.
“Acho is probably one of the top sports attorneys out there,” Skladany said. “All I know is he is a beast on wheels and he is like a pit bull on a pork chop. He is all in and the best part about him is he is all for the players. I think he’s got the whole package and he is smart as hell and one step ahead of the game.”
Skladany was once knocked out for four minutes in 1981 during a Lions game against the Chicago Bears and says he writes notes to himself so he does not forget work tasks.
“It is smart for everyone who was on a roster to get an assessment test,” he said. “Whether you played or if you got tapped on the head as a player you should get tested. Everyone should. If you are getting some memory loss and don’t get it checked two or three years from now you might not be able to find your way to the grocery store.”
The NFL isn’t going to make payments to everybody with short term memory loss. These cases must be air tight, so Acho sent former players to top flight doctors, including Dr. Steven Schechter from Beaumont in West Bloomfield.
“You must have the highest of credentials. There is no fly by night or these claims will be denied,” Acho said. “Dr. Schechter is a straight shooter and he is also the best neurologist around with the best credentials and ability. So that is why we use him.”
Acho recently delivered taped opening remarks to the annual NFL Players Association meeting in Hawaii after being asked by current president Eric Winston.
“The players wanted to hear from me after my run and I am honored to do it,” Acho said.
His message to current and former players was clear.
“They need to focus on their post football lives because their careers are only three years on average,” Acho said. “They need to focus on what they are going to do after football and make sure to visit their doctors annually. Make sure they are in a good place physically and mentally and listen to what the leaders of the NFLPA are telling them. They are getting good information but they have to listen to this type of advice.”