Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Standing up for those who paid too high a price to play on Sunday’s

Tuesday’s Insider Report delved into the sad saga of now former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Terry “Tank” Johnson. Cut by the Bears Monday, Johnson’s deviant off-field behavior directly led to the Bears cutting their second round pick for the 2004 NFL draft. Yesterday the Congressional House Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law held hearings on the National Football League’s System for Compensating Retired Players: An Uneven Playing Field? Semantics aside – the suggestion of an uneven playing field being examined by a Congressional Committee isn’t something any sports league wants to deal with.

The NFL generates more than $6 billion annually in revenues. The NFL’s television contracts collectively generate $3.75 billion a year. Current NFL players receive 60 percent of all football related revenues. The average NFL salary in 2006 was $1.4 million. And that average salary has been over the $1 million a year threshold for some time. The average salary of $1,169,470 for the 2001 season reflected a 5% increase over 1999, according to NFL Players Association documents. It bested the previous high of $1,137,800 set in 1998.

Everything changed for NFL players in 1982. The players went on a 57-day strike (no not the strike that inspired the movie “The Replacements”), but a work action that led to a 9 game NFL season. Among the ‘goodies’ the players negotiated with the owners – the right to obtain copies of all individual contracts.

Before NFL players obtained that right it was anyone’s guess what players were being paid. Former Kansas City guard Tom Condon, now a super-agent, told USA Today’s Gordon Forbes in 2001 he remembers learning in a shower conversation that his backup was earning $65,000, or $15,000 more than his own salary. The Chiefs dug down and gave Condon $65,000 plus 2 more years, each with a $10,000 raise.

"I was just happy as hell and said, 'Let's sign,' " Condon said. And when the NFLPA's first salary survey came out in 1982, Condon learned that the Chiefs were an equal opportunity employer. Condon (10th round), right tackle Charlie Getty (second) and left tackle Matt Herkenhoff (fourth), all from an offense-heavy 1974 draft, each earned $130,000 in base salary in 1982. Left guard Brad Budde, their first-round pick in 1980, earned $90,000. Jack Rudnay, a Pro Bowl center, earned $175,000. Shockingly, Bill Kenney, the starting quarterback, also earned $130,000.

Tuesday’s hearings have more to do with the business of football before 1982 than the millions of dollars today’s NFL players earn on the gridiron. The average NFL career isn’t more than four or five years but with some proper financial planning once an NFL career ends players (certainly not everyone) can be financially self sufficient.

One clear message that emerged from Tuesday’s hearings -- the players from the '50s, '60s and '70s laid the groundwork for the popularity of the NFL, a billion-dollar industry, and should be treated better, lawmakers said.

"Perhaps there ought to be a legal solution," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.

Two NFL Hall of Famers have taken strong leadership roles in doing what they believe must be done for the less fortunate long retired men they earned the right to play with on Sunday’s. Former Green Bay Packer great Jerry Kramer and Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. Along with Willie Davis, Joe DeLamielleure, Gale Sayers, Harry Carson (all honored as members of the Football Hall of Fame) have formed “Gridiron Greats”.

"We have a group that should be protected, but is not being protected," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla.

"What is even more troubling is that through projects such as NFL Films, the NFL continues to profit off those very same players who are denied benefits," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.

Clearly as is the case with all professional sports players’ unions/associations – those who are no longer active members of the unions/associations are no longer in a position to bargain pension benefits. In simpler terms – the players of today have to take care of the players of yesterday – and that is a lot easier said than done. But as Ditka and company have made clear as a perfect summer day, its time everyone stood up and is counted upon.

The greatest area of concern is the physical price these men of honor are paying today. And a few notes from Gridiron Greats tells it all -- Many players who helped build the NFL into what it is today ravaged their bodies though years of on-field abuse and are consequently unable to maintain a quality of life and financial security for themselves and their families due to physical limitations. The lack of an adequate pensions or disability support has left many football heroes receiving only $100-$300 in pension money from the NFL.

Case in point: NFL Great and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Herb Adderley receives $126.85 per month in pension. Many applications for disability support are denied and some players are to sick to even apply. As a result, some of the men who have given so much to the game can’t afford to buy medicine or to cover medical expenses for necessary surgeries to remedy football related injuries.

NFL Great and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Willie Wood has now been placed in assisted living care, but he could not afford the care and has been in dire need of financial aid for some time. Thanks to the kindness of the Ditka Trust, former teammates and others, enough money was raised to provide his necessary care. Some players have even found themselves without a roof over their head. Others live in isolation and loneliness, embarrassed by the condition in which they have found themselves in their golden years.

"Thank God for Congress. Maybe they're going to do something," Hall of Fame guard Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure said after a House subcommittee heard from four former players as well as representatives from the NFL.

"The system does not work," Ditka said.

"The bottom line is this system is broken," said former Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Brian Demarco, who apologized for "being emotional" as he described being homeless three times in the past four years. He said he has rods and screws in his back and can barely walk.

And the widow of one of the greatest of the greats -- Sandra Unitas, the widow of Baltimore Colts legend John Unitas, appearing at a news conference held earlier in the day before the afternoon hearings (Mrs. Unitas was not on the witness list) held up a hook with a rubberized handle that she said her Hall of Fame husband once used to button his shirts because of an injury dating to a 1968 preseason game. That was a visual opportunity!!

"He was rejected (for disability) like many of you here," Sandra Unitas said. She said Unitas wasn't bitter but "he was hurt and very, very disappointed."

Also addressing the media at the morning presser DeMarco offered a heart wrenching look at his life after he could no longer play on Sundays. An NFL’er for five years, DeMarco is living with titanium rods and screws in his back making his life a living hell.

"The bottom line is the system is broken," DeMarco said during the news conference put on by the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. "This is not just affecting the players; this is affecting entire families, and it's just not right."

Garrett Webster, son of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster also appearing at the press conference , told The Washington Post he understands that sentiment more than most. In 2002, his father died, as he put it, "cold, alone, on a floor, no wife around him, no family, few friends, addicted to painkillers, curled up in a ball," with only Garrett -- then 18 years old -- there to take care of him.

Like DeMarco, Webster and all the other former players in the room, Brent Boyd had turned to the NFL for assistance. In most of their cases, the players said they were denied.

"It's not just the physical and mental disabilities I had, but the added shame and pain that is added by the way the NFL treats us when we file a disability claim," Boyd said.

And how the Washington Post describes the fate of one former NFL’s borders on shame – shame on anyone who let a former football player’s life fall to where this man’s life fell.

Mike Murphy, who played for the Buffalo Bills, suffers from a degenerative disk in his back and neck. The 13 surgeries performed on him over the years to treat the injuries have taken their toll. He applied for full disability in 1998, and his claim was approved. Having just won custody of his daughter, Murphy bought a house and a truck with the money he received from the disability benefits.

Six years later, Murphy said he got a call telling him his disability payments would be eliminated. The NFL disability benefits program gave him no warning, he said, and as a result he ended up losing the house and the truck. Most of the rest of the disability money had gone into a college fund for his daughter.

Murphy went from a yearly disability income of $110,000 to zero in the span of a brief phone call, he said. He and his daughter stayed at his parents' home to avoid homelessness. Now, all he is left with is a message, one he intends to publicly state until the NFL provides what he and the other players feel is an adequate response.

"I don't want to ask for anything for free, but I got hurt on their watch; I got hurt playing in the NFL," Murphy said. "I just want them to step up to the table and set things right."

The list of witness who addressed the committee Tuesday did include Dennis Curran the NFL’s senior Vice President. Needless to say the NFL ‘suit’ didn’t quite see things as dire as the Gridiron Great make things out to be.

“Our history shows that new benefits have been added and existing benefits have been improved on a routine basis. As examples, in 1982, when I first began attending meetings for the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Retirement Plan ("Retirement Plan"), the trust had approximately $88 million in funding – it now totals $1.1 billion.

“The Retirement Plan is the cornerstone of the League's benefit program for players, providing retirement, disability, and death benefits. Since 1993, the Retirement Plan has been supplemented by other plans that provide additional retirement and disability payments. In 1982, players who played before 1959 had no retirement benefits.

“They now receive benefits as participants in the Retirement Plan. In addition, the number of years that a player has to play in order to qualify for a retirement benefit has been reduced from five years to three years. Since 1982, the benefit for a player who became totally and permanently disabled because of a football injury within 15 years after he left football has increased from roughly $9,000 to $110,000 per year. In 2006 alone, the Clubs contributed $126 million to the Retirement Plan. Over the next six years, the Clubs’ obligation will be in excess of $700 million. Last year, the plans distributed more than $55 million in pensions to former players, and approximately $20 million in disability payments.”

Curran led off the session and after a break – Coach Ditka took the stand, the legendary Hall of Fame coach and player made it clear – he wants answers and he wants answers now!
“The following summarizes our concerns with the issue at hand. We believe members of the Subcommittee should examine the following points closely in order to gain a better understanding of this issue and take the appropriate steps to rectify this unacceptable state of affairs.

1. Why and where did this all start and why are we in front of Congress?

2. The numbers of former players in need is documented and identified – there are under 300 – with the collective resources of the parties involved why can’t we solve this problem?

3. There are the resources and numbers – the problem has been identified and the problem can be rectified if the powers that be want to solve it – it can be done.

“Please help us relieve burdensome circumstances.

“In addition, to ensure that former players in need get the support and are provided with the resources they need, the Mike Ditka Hall Of Fame Assistance Trust Fund recommends that the U.S. House of Representatives:

1. Investigate the circumstances of former NFL players with specific focus on why they are experiencing such serious problems being turned down for disability / medical care when they need it.
2. Investigate delayed onset dementia, short term memory loss and the causality, correlation and relationship to repeated prior head injuries like those commonly experienced in football.
3. Investigate why this problem hasn’t been solved in light of the tremendous financial resources of the NFL owners and Player’s Union.
4. Investigate why there is a 12 year statute of limitations on player disability claims.
5. Investigate who made the determination that 12 years should be the limitation on claims for disabilities.
6. Investigate why so many former players are being turned down when they apply for help.

“It all boils down to the difference between what is right and what is wrong. These are our people and we are asking for your support for a group of proud, dignified men who suffer greatly as a result of their injuries, many of which are directly or indirectly related to their careers in professional football.” Coach Ditka testified.

But the bottom line is just that – how much are those in need, those who built the NFL into a business that in the very near future will generate $7 million a year? According to a Baltimore Sun report -- about $13,000 a year in benefits.

"We have the worst pensions in sports with the best league," DeLamielleure said. "And the owners have given more than enough. The two owners I played for, Mr. [Art] Modell and Mr. [Ralph] Wilson are the best people I know. The owners give up 60 percent [of total revenue] and [the union] can't give retired guys more than $13,000?"

Bruce Laird, the president of the Baltimore Colts' alumni chapter of retired players, another critic of Upshaw, told The Baltimore Sun NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's recent decision to create an alliance of NFL entities was the strongest statement about the retired players' lack of representation.

"My hope has always been to have true democratic representation in the union," Laird said. "But it's obvious to all of us ... that retired players have no place and no representation in the NFLPA.

"Even now, if I knew that Gene Upshaw would represent all players and have democratic elections and we would be part of the union and work with active players, I feel we have no interest in working with a gentleman of Gene Upshaw's morality. He is a nonentity. ... He means nothing to retired players."

DeLamielleure, a father of six, said he thought the threat was at least part intimidation.

"I do believe that Upshaw thought long and hard before he said that," DeLamielleure said. "There's no doubt in my mind. He thought, 'I can intimidate this guy.'

"It's really ugly, what's going on today. I feel bad for Goodell. He walked into a hornet's nest. He's got all these [player] arrests that he's got to get under control, and the guy who leads these men makes a threat like a gangster, like a thug."

There are no easy solutions to what is one of the most important issues the National Football League is going to have to deal with. Putting Gene Upshaw at the center of the firestorm is interesting. A member of the Football Hall of Fame, Upshaw’s NFL football career began when he was the first round (17th overall) pick in the 1967 NFL draft. Upshaw retired after the 1981 season.

If not for the opportunities he’s enjoyed since he retired as the executive director of the NFLPA Gene Upshaw could have been one of the former NFL players in desperate need of assistance. Upshaw lived a life with many of the former NFL’ers reaching out to current NFL players – and those current NFL players look to Gene Upshaw for guidance and advice in dealing with challenges along the lines of what yesterday the Congressional House Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law met about Tuesday. However even with that said – for the sake of the men he played with on Sunday, for the sake of the men who play today, for the sake of everyone who earned the right to play on Sunday’s Gene Upshaw needs to find solutions.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post.

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