THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
The National Football League owners have a labor agreement with the present members of the reconstituted National Football League Players Association but it appears that the league still has problems with the players association's stance on not helping out former players with their medical needs years after their last game in the league. The league apparently informed Carl Eller's legal team on Friday that the-then decertified National Football League Players Association decided not to take a $500 million offer over ten-years to get retirees life football medical benefits and an uptick in pensions as part of the recently completed collective bargaining agreement.
Eller, the one time member of the Minnesota Vikings "Purple People Eaters" defensive line, has emerged as a key player in the NFL-NFLPA labor agreement. Eller and a number of former players inserted themselves into this year's collective bargaining talks because they felt the league and whatever the NFLPA called themselves in this round of negotiations had failed to provide adequate post football life care in terms of pensions and medical benefits to former players.
There are numerous stories about former National Football League players who cannot function on their own or are suffering from dehabilitating injuries that occurred on the football field but did not come out until they were long retired from the game. A new story has been making the rounds in retired players’ circles about a onetime offensive lineman who played in the American Football Conference.
"(The former player) has gone downhill fast," said his wife. "He’s now on the 88 plan. I can't keep up with him – even with full-time help. We do not need anything financially. YET. But we do need communication and support. I could never have imagined how hard this would be and I pride myself on being a strong cookie. We are living in Crazyland every day!
"Fortunately, (the player) is just as sweet as he has always been. But two of us chase him all day long. He has several self-inflicted wounds: eye, thumb, nose. Minor but of concern. He thinks he’s holding something in his hand all day – nothing there but his hand is clasped. It’s crazy. Even two of us cannot keep up. Last night, I went to take a shower and I forgot to lock the front door. Within 10 minutes he was outside with the TV remote in his hand along with 4 or 5 books (anything he could get his hands on) and in his bare feet walking down a long driveway to get into a neighbor’s mailbox! And Terry cannot go into an assisted living facility at this stage as he’s beyond that and needs round-the-clock supervision to keep him from hurting himself or getting into trouble."
There is another story going around about a one-time offensive lineman in the AFL and NFL who is also totally disabled and is suffering from the same head injuries as his friend, the late John Mackey who died less than a month ago.
That former player’s story seems all too familiar.
The "88 plan" came about after the league and the NLFPA seemed to be shamed into having to do something to help former players. The “88 Plan,” named after John Mackey's Baltimore Colts uniform number, came about after it was revealed that the Pro Football Hall of Famer and one time NFLPA president Mackey was suffering from frontotemporal dementia. The two sides signed off on the following the 2006 CBA singing. The "88 plan" provides up to $88,000 a year for nursing care or day care for ex-players with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, or $50,000 for home care.
Not everyone can qualify for the "88 Plan" or other post career benefits. There is a panel made up of NFL management types and former players that rules on who gets money and treatment and who doesn't. It is a very complex issue that seems to have no solution.
The players association has always been about "Money Now". In 1982, NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey along with his then assistant, the former Oakland Raiders player, Gene Upshaw and the rest of the staff used the slogan "Money Now" to hammer their point across in that year's NFLPA strike. The NFLPA wanted the money in 1982 and didn't strive for any real post-career benefits. The Hall of Fame defensive back Herb Adderley is getting about $175 a month in pension. Wayne Hawkins, a long time offensive lineman in the American Football League, gets slightly more than $200 a month. To qualify for any kind of care, a player has to last three years.
The NFLPA, not the NFL owners, has failed to live up to a union/association's responsibility to get the best deal possible and that doesn't necessarily mean money now. In a rough world of pro football where exaggerated toughness commands respect there comes a price. The NFLPA has constantly ignored players once they go into the civilian world. The former players have blamed the NFL owners for their indifference but the NFL owners are not obligated to do anything for their former employees. They have been engaged in the collective bargaining process for more than five decades. The owners aren’t angels and in fact did not initially recognize any players association or union in the late 1950s.
The NFL ownership group, hardly a bastion of liberal and enlightened thinkers, understands that there is a need to collectively bargain with the players and has apparently offered mechanisms to take care of players who have suffered lifelong injuries related to the industry. The NFL may also face other legal suits. Seventy five former players including one time New York Giants running back and Super Bowl MVP O. J. Anderson are suing the league claiming that the NFL deliberately held back information that concussions had long term health effects.
The American public has been taking care of some players through Medicare and Social Security Insurance for years unknowingly. Players have turned to the government because they are uninsurable because of pre-existing injuries that they suffered on the field. It is not unknown how many players are on the Medicare or Social Security rolls long before their 65th birthdays because most of the severely injured players never come forth and go public about their National Football League or American Football League related injuries. There are few players still alive who played in the All American Football Conference between 1946 and 1949 who can discuss whether they had life impacting injuries from football. Other players who may have been saved by the American safety net include those who have played high school and college football, indoor football, minor league football and those who were in the World Football league, the United States Football League and the various incarnations of the World League of American Football which included NFL Europa.
It is an industry wide problem.
The former players who once were part of the NFLPA seem to have been betrayed by the leadership or were blinded by their agents or the "Money Now" thinking. The players found out that they are not only considered disposable commodities by their teams who tell them to play through injuries, both minor and severe, but by their agents and their association.
The NFL also stands for "Not For Long" in many cases.
The former players are fragmented which is a problem and there are often a good many agendas that are being put forth by people who are trying to rectify untenable situations. The NFLPA may have wanted to reach out to the former players in a public relations ploy and went as far as almost offering them a seat at the collective bargaining table. In the end, the NFL owners led by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the decertified NFLPA led by Executive Director DeMaurice Smith came up with an agreement that allowed training camps to open a little late and persevered the 2011 season without the retirees having a seat.
There is a legacy fund to take care of former players in the new agreement although no one seems to know how it will work. Perhaps the league's insurance groups will take some of the severely injured players off of the Medicare and Social Security rolls and replace that with better health care and pension benefits. Perhaps is a big word though. This isn't silly stuff like "Spygate" where New England Patriots coach Bill Belichek was videotaping run throughs or the other inane stories that are manufactured throughout a football season about one team really hating another team. This is real life and the lawsuits that are being pushed might have be avoidable if the players had better advice.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.