BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
Has the Philadelphia Eagles organization weathered the public relations problem of the first week of the National Football League season after Eagles coach Andy Reid put Stewart Bradley back on the field about four minutes after the linebacker suffered a head injury. Quarterback Kevin Kolb also went down with a head injury in the game against Green Bay. Kolb has lost his starting job but it wasn't because of the injury according to Reid. Michael Vick is playing better.
The Eagles franchise was criticized by medical observers for not giving Bradley a full exam before he went back into the game. But the storyline has shifted from the two concussions to Vick as the Eagles starter. Injuries are not great stories to tell for the football narrative. No one wants to know about the wreckage and carnage of football.
Players are trained to play through pain and there is a macho man mentality of never showing weakness. A player can get his "bell rung" and after the initial blow get right back into the action. But there was a toll that was paid by former players and many of them don't tell their stories about life after the cheering stops. Big, strong men who played football in their 20s have problems with their short term memory because of head injuries and suffer from depression and might be more prone to Lou Gehrig's disease because of head injuries.They also are candidates for serious cardiovascular problems according to a Mayo Clinic study.
Sunday and Monday Night warriors are mere mortals as they get older.
It is doubtful that players give much thought to the issue after they began to feel better. Players don't really look ahead and think about what might happen to them 10 or 15 years after their playing careers are done. But Bradley, Kolb and every player in the NFL should be asking some very tough questions of league officials and the leadership of their players association.
The questions should start with a simple query.
Are all NFL players going to get real post retirement health benefits and if a player is physically disabled because of an injury or injuries suffered on the field, will the players association take care of medical bills or will the disability board turn down the former player forcing that player to seek government programs to pay for medical bills?
Will the NFL retirement and disability board take care of them? In the case of Johnny Unitas and many other players, they answer was no. Apparently players had a choice, retirement benefits or disability benefits. In Unitas' case, the retirement checks stopped when he took disability payments.
What happens if an NFL career lasts just a year before benefits really kick in? Who takes care of that player if in that one year of NFL play something happens that won't kick up until years after the career is done but can be traced back to football?
Will the United States Government be responsible for football related injuries? The answer to that question is yes and it doesn't matter if you are for health care or against it or you want social security or are looking to gut the system. That's why Congress is taking a closer look at the violent world of football.
One former player is claiming that owners don't want to pay medical and disability payments to former players and that the players association has gone along with the owners and not helped disabled players.
Another question. Is the Department of Labor's assertion that the NFL Retirement and Disability Board paying more attention to hiring lawyers and spending money there instead on former players with disabilities true?
The players should be looking into that.
The National Football League Players Association has put out some information saying it has spent $13 million or so to help out disabled players. A little while ago, the former Interim Director of the NFLPA Richard Berthelsen who was the association's general counsel for years took issue with the comment that the former Executive Director, the late Gene Upshaw, did very little to help out former players like John Mackey in times of need. Berthelsen said nobody did more for Mackey than Upshaw. The league and the players have a program, Plan 88 (Mackey's old number with the Baltimore Colts) that was added to the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2007 providing eligible retired players with up to $88,000 per year for medical and custodial care resulting from dementia or Alzheimer's.
Mackey, the former President of the National Football League Players Association, is suffering from front temporal dementia. The NFL Players Association initially refused to pay a disability income due because some doctors have concluded there is no proven link between brain injury and playing football.
The battle between former players and the football industry over whether playing football causes brain injuries continues. The NFL is telling players if you have a head injury report it immediately.
There is a lot of infighting and frustration among former players and the back and forth e-mails in that group are rather enlightening. A major question has popped up with deserves closer attention. If the National Football League Players Association does indeed decertify in an effort to stop NFL owners from locking out the players following the Super Bowl, what happens to their benefits?
Do the retired players also suffer from the lockout? According to one lawyer, there could be some trouble ahead for the former players.
"Essentially they would cease to exist as a union — which they did once before as you know and won (Freeman) McNeil (the former New York Jets running back and seven other NFL players filed a lawsuit in a Minneapolis court room against the league in 1993 because the players felt the NFL's Plan B free agency gambit was too restrictive. A jury agreed with them which forced the owners to go back to the bargaining table and come up with a free agency system) — and their fiduciary obligation to anyone would likely cease, except perhaps as it pertains to the pension board — and then only as board members and not as a union," said the lawyer.
"So the pension fund would continue — the union wouldn't — in theory, although the same people would be involved as board members. What would change this time is the league would likely make attempts to reunionize the players and start new benefit funds and there is significant doubt that (NFLPA Executive Director) DeMaurice Smith could actually hold enough players together this time.
"Also it isn't a dunk shot that the (President Barack) Obama NLRB will permit decertification given their pro-union stance. Or that it truly prevents a lockout legally. However, at least theoretically it should prevent a lockout because the owners would be in breach of contract as to every multi-year contract they have currently in force because there would be no union to lockout. This is part of the super power that decertification gives the players.
"Lockout is a judicially recognized corollary to a' union's right to strike which is explicit in the National Labor Relations Act. Lockout doctrine essentially says that since workers are likely to go on strike to cause the most economic damage, an employer has the right to lock them out once a CBA expires to prevent the harm of an unplanned strike.
"It may be practically harder to sue under these circumstances jurisdictionally as you would be suing pension board members and not a union for failure to represent or breach of fiduciary duty."
There is always a question of pensions and whether former players can get more money out of the league/players association in the upcoming bargaining sessions. It appears that the NFLPA doesn't really care about the former players, players who helped build the association and went through labor battles with the owners going back to 1956. Former players want a say in how the association is run and want a vote in the association's affairs with respect to the retirement benefits. The former players want the same rights that retired United Auto Workers, which includes the right to vote on strikes and contract ratifications.
There is far more to football than a game that is played on the field. Once the cheering stops for many players, the real physical problems of taking a beating on a daily basis between playing games and practice begins. Once the cheering ends, the player fades into oblivion and it appears that the players association has that viewpoint. The players association under Upshaw just looked to get as much money as possible for active association members. Players still don't have guaranteed contracts and there are many questions about retirement and disability benefits.
The labor battles of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were all about money and not about long time ramifications of playing football. Get the most money was the theme but little attention was paid to severance pay, medical benefits and future pensions. The players association made a major blunder in strategy and the players of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s are seeing the fruitlessness of the CBAs of those days now.
There are a number of former players getting government assistance flying under the radar screen. Congress is asking questions but no one from either party in Washington has answers.
Football is a violent game and players know that the next play could be their last. The players signed contracts and promised to go through a wall for a team. The teams and the players association have not lived up to their part of the bargain and that should be the underlying theme of the next collective bargaining agreement not just a grab for the biggest part of the money pie.