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Jul 03rd
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Covenant between fans and sports is a facade

lucasoilstadium_optBY EVAN WEINER

It is almost laughable to hear sports owners and employees (coaches, front office executives and players) talk about their concerns for the fan, the mythical covenant that National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern uses in biblical terms to explain the bond and trust that sports and fans have. It is a mere fantasy. Sports is a big business with cutthroats all about and the fan is the last to know.

Sy Syms used to use a tag line in his television commercials in the New York market and other points in selling his clothes store saying that "an educated consumer is our best customer." If that axiom was applied to the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League or big time college sports, anyone with any inkling of how the sports industry works would walk away before they were fleeced.

Sports fans have online petitions, Facebook groups trying to show their muscle in an effort to put an end to the NFL lockout. They should devote their energies to other pursuits. Neither the owners nor the players care about sports fans except to lift money out of their pockets to pay for the debt service on a municipally built facility or for an autograph at some show.

But sports fans keep coming back no matter what is thrown at them. The NFL has a more serious problem than the lockout. The health of former players is becoming a huge issue. Football is a dangerous occupation. President Theodore Roosevelt demanded the game on the college level be cleaned up back in 1905 or the game was destined for the trash heap. College players were being killed and maimed.

Roosevelt used the bully pulpit of the Oval Office and browbeat the powers of football in those days, coaches from Harvard, Yale and Princeton into changing the rules of the game to make football safer.

More than a century later, the game remains brutal and players -- with the exception of some kickers and punters -- pay for their time in the game. NFL owners and the various incarnations of players’ representatives collectively bargained working conditions for decades. Players make a lot of money over a very short period of time but only a select few vested veterans get some form of pension and healthcare after their careers end. Healthcare benefits run out five years after a player is released for a final time or retires. The cumulative effects of being battered from July through December on almost a daily basis for years kicks in sometime after that five-year window closes.

Those players have pre-existing conditions and cannot get health insurance, which forces them at an early age to apply for social security insurance and Medicare. The "discarded" players who qualify for health benefits and pensions (five years in the league in the 1960s, three years today) seem to have roadblock after roadblock thrown at them by the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Players Retirement Plan board.

The NFLPA has not followed the path blazed by the National Basketball Players Association and the Major League Baseball Players Association to take care of old performers. In this negotiation, it seems that "Money Now" is still the motto.

The players association has failed in protecting players for decades and went after the best contracts they could in terms of money now. The carnage of professional football is well documented. Some NFL players are well compensated but the rank and file players never get that rich and have lifetime health injuries.

Gail Cogdill was a wide receiver with the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons and the Baltimore Colts between 1960 and 1971. Cogdill has some heart problems and was thinking about moving into an assisted living home just in case his condition got worse. He filled out the paperwork and was rejected. He could not afford to pay for it.

NFL players who quit before 1993 don't get much of a pension. Cogdill gets $200 a month for 11 years service. He took an early retirement, which was a mistake.

"In the 1970s they told us we weren't going to live long; players died at 54, so they told us to take early retirement pensions. There must have been between 2,000 to 3,000 who took it," he said.

Cogdill, who just turned 74, beat the actuary’s estimates on the average lifespan of an NFL player. He is still in the loop talking to other players. Cogdill freely admits that he really doesn't know why there is a lockout and he isn't alone among the former players.

"About 85 to 90 percent don't understand what is going on," he said. "But (the players) don't care about us and we don't care about them. We aren't getting what we need. I could never figure out why they are paying a rookie (St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford) all that money."

Bradford apparently got a $50 million bonus from St. Louis Rams ownership.

Cogdill's peers all together in the 11 years he played with adjustments for inflation did not get $50 million.

Cogdill rattles the names of friends who have been failed by the NFLPA's misguided goals for "Money Now" and not worry about the long time health problems. Cogdill and his peers were told they weren't going to live long anyway.

"(Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker) Clyde Werner has had 15 back operations and paid for all of them," said Cogdill. "Milt Plum (Cogdill's quarterback in Detroit) needed a hip operation.” If you don't make a call (to the players association) you may not get help.”

“Johnny Unitas got nothing (for an unusable right hand),” Cogdill said of the hall of famer, and the man who opened TV exec’s eyes to the NFL."

Cogdill doesn't have money to get into an assistant living home in an NFL program.

While Cogdill battles his health problems, he is mentally sharp, which seems to be a rarity in the world of former players but he cannot get the assistance he really needs. But lockout or not, the business of the NFL goes on.

New Jersey's Zygi Wilf, the owner of the Minnesota Vikings, is closer or maybe further from getting a new stadium in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul. Wilf will kick in money in the estimated $1.1 billion project but getting the rest of the money out of government coffers may prove to be tough.


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