BY EVAN WEINER
THE POLITICS OF SPORTS BUSINESS
When Brent Boyd reported to the Minnesota Vikings training camp in 1980 after being selected in the third round of that year's draft, the last thing on his mind was testifying before a Congressional panel about the plight of former National Football League players who suffered head injuries doing their jobs as professional football players. Boyd was a guard and like a lot of rookies, he was eager to make a favorable impression of Vikings coach Bud Grant.
Twenty-seven Septembers later in 2007, Boyd was telling members of the United States Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that he suffered brain damage from concussions, and how a disability review board rejected the opinion of two doctors who said his health problems were caused by football and sided with a third doctor who didn't agree with the other two. Boyd testified that the NFL and NFLPA were battling links between long-term health problems and concussions in the same way tobacco companies once fought links between cancer and cigarettes.
Nearly three years later, a good number of retired players are frustrated and wondering whatever happened to NFL provided healthcare after they left the NFL and why the public — both football and non-football fans — is paying their healthcare.
Boyd is still battling for NFL — not public — health benefits.
Boyd has been one of the most vocal critics of the National Football League and the National Football League Players Association. He remembered the game that would ultimately change his life. It was the final pre-season game of the 1980 season, Boyd's Vikings took on the Miami Dolphins at the old Orange Bowl. Boyd was knocked out on a play and lost sight in his right eye. He was on the sidelines telling his coach that he could see out of his right eye, the coach said can you see out of your left eye, Boyd said yes and went back into the game.
He had his bell rung. It wasn't a concussion or anything serious, he was wobbly, dizzy and couldn't see out of his right eye but as soon as all of that went away, he would be fine. It was like hitting your funny bone. Boyd was a rookie hoping to make the team and would do anything not to be cut including staying in the game. It was the turning point of Boyd's life. He made the team but his health was severely compromised. It was the first of dozens or maybe even hundreds of concussions he suffered. The injury would eventually cost him his career, a possibility of going to law school, his marriage, his post career jobs and his house. It was not until 1989 he said that he found out that the constant dizziness and fatigue were caused by the head injuries.
Boyd was out of football by 1987 at the age of 30. "Guys who retire in their 20s and 30s have a regular life ahead of them. Careers, family, you have to pay mortgages. It took away my mind, my potential dreams and goals," he said. But Boyd because of the multiple concussions could not have that and became the "father of the new movement on concussions" instead.
Out of that Boyd founded "Dignity After Football" which is a group that is fighting for the "decent benefits and dignity" for former American and National Football League players who performed in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s before the explosion of salaries in the game. Boyd wants to get the message out to the people who fund the game, TV partners, marketing partners, the people who buy luxury boxes, club suites, park in valet parking and use in-stadium restaurants and buy merchandise along with just everyday football fans. The group that includes Roman Gabriel, Joe Kapp and Ed White wants people to know that "former players live out their lives above the poverty lines and did not know how playing on Astroturf, which was developed by Monsanto, (or polyturf) would impact their bodies and the players were never told about the dangers of 'getting your bell rung' which was a concussion with serious long term effects."
The National Football League has, at least, publicly posted a warning to players which will be posted in NFL locker rooms that comes complete with a warning which seems similar to the little blurbs on cigarette packs that say smoking can be harmful. The NFL's poster includes a warning — that concussions "can change your life and your family's life forever." The warning has slogans such as "Let's Take Brain Injuries Out of Play" and has information about concussions such as facts, symptoms, and poses questions such as "Why Should I Report My Symptoms" and "What Should I Do If I Think I've Had a Concussion."
The NFL seems to be willing to acknowledge there is a problem after years of denial but for former players like Boyd, the operative word here is seems. There is little movement to help the older players like the 53-year old Boyd who rely on government programs such as Social Security and Medicare for their health care.
"There is no health care," said Boyd. (The injuries) drains bank accounts, forces divorces. We (as football players) went in with the understanding that there was a safety net."
But there was no safety net and that leads to two questions. Were members of the National Football League Players Association underrepresented under their Executive Directors Ed Garvey and Gene Upshaw and should municipalities be liable for some of the injuries because ultimately municipalities ran stadiums that players knew were unsafe? Players would tell anyone who listened that the municipally owned stadiums in Philadelphia and Houston were the worst playing surfaces around and that the "artificial turf" under any name was taking a toll on the players well being.
Could the players go after the NFLPA in court for not getting benefits as part of the collective bargaining agreement with the owners? Could the players go after the municipalities or someone for installing Astroturf or polyturf or some other surface which was on top of a thin rubber pad on top of asphalt or cement? Is it too late to go after all the municipalities that had unsafe fields?
Boyd is not sure about a class action suit by the former players against their former association but the municipality liability is a question that might be worth pursuing.
The ersatz turf had bubbles and seems which players didn't think much about during the course of doing their jobs. Some players suffered knee injuries just hitting a seem, players that were knocked down hit the ground hard on a turf that the rug on top of the rubber on top of the asphalt or cement, the brain could not handle that type of impact.
In addition to his head injuries, Boyd has had knee replacements and has bad hips. The need replacements were paid by the United States government insurance programs, not the NFL.
Boyd has taken his case to Washington and is hoping that the United States Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and other members of the Senate and the House of Representatives will put pressure on the NFL and the NFLPA to take care of the older players.
A lot of the former players though are keeping quiet publicly. Privately there are e-mails from former players such as this one whose name will not be identified.
"I just had neck surgery and I am scheduled to have lumbar (L3 L4 L5) surgery in November. I am thinking about trying the Oxygen chambers for my recovery as well as, using the Oxygen chambers to reduce some of the pain in my lower back that I suffer with daily.
"Question: Will this treatment (Oxygen chamber) help me? How will it help? How often should I administer this treatment in order to see the benefits? However, it's $$Very Expensive. I am eager to hear your thoughts. Thank you for any assistance that you can provide on this matter and concern."
Some former players are pushing for the NFL to install hyperbaric oxygen chambers at training facilities and stadiums to help players (and former) players with head injuries and memory loss.
There is also a new collective bargaining agreement that needs to be negotiated between the owners and players. The present agreement ends shortly after the Super Bowl is played in February. So far there is no political pressure on the owners and players to address the old players needs however that could change if Congress decides to take a closer look at the NFL.
Why should Congress be involved? Congress created today's NFL. The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Cellar's gift to then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and NFL owners. Cellar got the bill passed in the House, The Senate agreed and President John F. Kennedy signed it into law on September 30, 1961. The bill allowed the NFL to sell all 14 teams as one entity to a TV network. CBS beat out NBC with a major contract that was worth more than all 14 individual local NFL TV networks combined and started the NFL gold mine. The American Football League's 1964 agreement with NBC made it possible for the league to challenge the NFL financially and ultimately force a merger between the competitors in 1966.
Congress had to approve the merger. Both the House and Senate signed off on the merger and President Lyndon Johnson's signature in 1966 created a super football league and the Super Bowl.
Additionally two Congressional bills that were signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the 1984 Cable TV Act and the Tax Act of 1986 greatly benefitted the NFL (and all major league sports in the United States). Owners were able to make billions because of the changes in the cable TV structure which a basic expanded tier and ruled out a la carte selections by consumers and the changes in the tax code changed the way municipalities funded stadiums. Municipalities could get as little as eight cents on the dollar from stadium revenues to pay off stadium debt. It is not a coincidence that most new or renovated stadium and arena facilities in the United States were built after 1986.
Boyd thinks the National Football League Players Association should have taken better care of the players but the players have never really looked after much except getting paid more money. Boyd was the Vikings player rep during the 1982 strike and said that the players had to be sold on paying union dues as it was voluntary in those days and that players just concentrated on ending the strike of 1982 and getting back on the field. An effort to include players who played before 1959 in a benefits package failed in 1982. These were the same players who formed the NFLPA back in 1956.
The players wanted more immediately and never thought about the future and the Garvey-Upshaw team always concentrated on getting more money but some players privately complained about making sure that someone took care of playing conditions and severance/health packages.
Money won out. A pension and disability plan lost. Twenty five years after the 1982 strike, pension and disability remained a problem that Congress wanted to know about.
"We fought for the salaries and benefits (today's players get); it would be a classy thing for today's players (to give some benefits). You are only allowed the benefits you negotiate," Boyd said.
Boyd is one of the few who is visibly out in the public talking about the old players. The old players do talk among themselves about injuries but there is a football mentality of suck it up. They know football is a violent game and that a player will get injured. But it is still for them, take one for the team or as the Giants defensive lineman Jim Burt said after the 1987 strike when the players folded like a cheap suit, "we are used to be hit over the head but its okay."
The mentality has not seemed to change much after retirement.
"There is a touch of machismo," said Boyd. "There is fatalism, an embarrassment. Why do it if nothing is going on?" The fatalism comes out. "I don't know how many years I have left but I don't feel robbed (by playing football). I made uninformed decisions, that's what you made. I feel robbed that I didn't have that information (on head injuries), there is an irony at the same time the NFL is being the good guy with the posters about concussions, they denied (Boyd's) disability."
The poster is up in NFL locker rooms on concussions. But the former players who have had life altering injuries have seen no real change. For a good many of them, they are out of sight and out of mind even though they were the guys immortalized by the voice of John Facenda on NFL Films, sportswriters and TV networks, and built the National Football League into the America's most popular game.