Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Time to remember those who made the National Football League GREAT

One of the “classic” coaches and personalities in National Football League history Hall of Fame coach and player Mike Ditka will return to the United States Congress today for the second Congressional Hearing into the National Football League player retirement assistance plan. Ditka, will be joined by fellow Football Hall of Fame member Gale Sayers and former Dallas Cowboy Daryl Johnston will also testify. Retired NFL dire need player Brent Boyd will also testify; Boyd is a player currently receiving assistance from the Gridiron Greats. Garrett Webster, son of HOF player Mike Webster will also testify. A number of retired players that the Gridiron Greats are assisting will also be in attendance.

This marks the second appearance by Ditka and company. The Gridiron Greats met with Congressional leaders on Thursday, July 26, 2007 – a session that ended elected officials making it clear to the National Football League – its time to step up and be counted when it comes to the price some of Sunday’s heroes had being paying for years the results of debilitating and crippling injuries.

“I am honored that I have been asked to testify before the Unites Stated Senate and to join NFL Legends Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers in providing testimony about disability issues facing retired NFL players,” said former Dallas Cowboy, Daryl Johnston. “I have had first hand experience with the system and I thank the committee for providing me an opportunity to share my first hand experiences and insight with regard to these important issues. I also look forward to working with the Gridiron Greats once again and participating in the post hearing press for forum.”

“The Gridiron Greats has stabilized many retired players and their families and we continue to do so but we are just a band aid,” said Gridiron Greats Board Member Mike Ditka. “I am honored to have the opportunity to provide testimony at the upcoming Senate hearings. Our Gridiron Greats organization, and my HOF Trust, feel that it is important for the Senate and the public to understand from a human perspective the disability issues and challenges with the system many retired players have to face. I am thrilled that my long time friend, and fellow Gridiron Greats board member, Gale Sayers will also testify.”

“The fact I was asked to testify will provide me the opportunity to discuss an issue that is creating hardships for many retired players and their families,” said Gridiron Greats Board Member, former Chicago Bear, Gale Sayers. “I am thankful to have this opportunity and grateful to the committee for taking up this issue which is affecting the lives of many that played this great game. While our Gridiron Greats Organization is providing support services and financial aid to retired players who are disabled, permanent and long term solutions must be found.”

The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund is a nonprofit organization overseen by Mike Ditka, Harry Carson, Joe DeLamielleure, Gale Sayers, Willie Davis and others. The Gridiron Greats provides immediate financial aid and social services to retired NFL players who are in dire need as a direct result of inadequate disability, pensions, or other support services provided by the NFL, as well as other reasons. The Gridiron Greats Fund assists players with medical costs, food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and also provides hands-on coordination and support services. The organization focuses on the humanitarian side of post-football related issues.

“The Gridiron Greats Organization would like to thank the committee for calling this hearing and for inviting two of our board members and dire need players that we are assisting to testify about the NFL disability system,” said Jennifer Smith, Executive Director, of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.

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.

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."

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.”

Both NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw are expected to appear today. Both men where harshly criticized for not testifying on July 26. Those sentiments aside, in one of his pre-season media conferences Goodell defended the NFL’s treatment of retired players.

“There are a few reasons for that. One is I believe that we as a league, we as a union, need to do more for our retired players. I firmly believe that. I know Gene (Upshaw) believes in that. We have to be intelligent about how we approach this issue.
“What we're trying to do is figure out exactly what it is we can be doing to be responsive to our former players. There are medical issues. There are disability issues. There are pension issues. We have been focused primarily on the medical issues over the last several months.

“Our union has gone back four times in the Collective Bargaining Agreement over the last 13 years and quite significantly improved pensions. Obviously, there's more that can get done. If the union was making improvements to that, it obviously recognizes there are things that should be done from a pension standpoint.

”But I think our union deserves some credit for going back and looking at the former players. Gene and I have agreed we should be looking at this going forward.”

As for Upshaw (another member of the Football Hall of Fame), he offered this on the plight of retired NFL players earlier this month on HBO’s Costas Now. “Everyone always points to the NFLPA. They always say, well, why didn't the NFLPA do this? Why don't you look at the other side and say why didn't the owners do it? I'm the only one that's willing to stand up and say the owners should do more. Everyone should be saying the same thing.”

And how did Goodell respond to Upshaw pointing the fingers at the owners – not very well. “We are saying that. We are already paying 60 percent of our gross revenues to our players. To think that we're going to be paying more than that is difficult to fathom for our ownership and for most businesses to understand. The players can divvy up the 60 percent however they wish.”

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

Labels: , , , , , ,