NFL, Retirees Remain in Tussle on Benefits

Super Bowl XLIII was no better a reminder as to why so many Americans have made the NFL the king when it comes to the most watched professional sports league in the United States. And it is no coincidence that it continually is rated the favorite of sports fans in poll after poll. Additionally, the NFL also has bragging rights when it comes to yearly revenue, expected to be about $8 billion for the 2008 season as compared to Major League Baseball's nearly $7 billion annually.

And there is perhaps no better time to remember those who made it possible for the NFL's owners and players today to be able to revel in its continued success — the players who helped to build the league.

For the past couple of years, it has become public knowledge that a select group of retired NFL players have been struggling physically and economically since putting their playing days behind them. It is a serious matter, covering a complex and vast number of interrelated issues, rife with conflicts of interest.

As such, it has garnered the interest of the U.S. Congress, which held several hearings over the past two years, with the generation of a report by the Congressional Research Service, as requested by the House Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and completed in April 2008.

Most knowledgeable sports fans realize that the professional sports industry represents another sector of big business. And that it too at times opens itself up to public scrutiny as concerns legalities, commerce, and anti-trust issues, not to mention pleasing its fanbase, the consumer.

But in this particular case, there has been dissent from numerous camps. The question remains as to whether there is a solution to help make those former NFL players whole again, to some extent legally, but moreover, whether there is any moral obligation to ill and/or financially-strapped former players by the NFL, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), or even individual players.

Given the complicated nature of this topic and its intertwining issues, it would fail to do it justice to assume it can be covered in one short article. However, it is important to keep illuminated some of the unresolved issues.

And in that effort, the following quote perhaps best describes the conflict at hand. How prevalent its sentiment is among current NFL players is hard to quantify, but at the very least, it needs to be more prominently exposed:

"There are some guys out there that have made bad business decisions. They've had a couple divorces and they're making payments to this place and that place. And that's why they don't have money. And they're coming to us to basically say, 'Please make up for my bad judgment.' In that case, that's not our fault as players."

That quote was made by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in Tampa, FL, during the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIII. He had been asked about the organization, Gridiron Greats, the non-profit organization which has raised funds and provided public awareness for alumni players who suffer disabilities and lack sufficient funds for costly medical care and insurance. Brees initially responded that Gridiron Greats' claims "are unfair because the picture they're painting is different than reality."

But perhaps Mr. Brees was unaware of an express-mailed letter that current Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk had sent to every single NFL player in late November 2008 on behalf of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund. It requested that players donate a portion of their game check for Game 16 on December 21, 2008 to the non-profit organization for what was called Gridiron Guardian Sunday.

According to Gridiron Greats Executive Director Jennifer Smith, as of Thursday, January 29, 2009, a total of 15 players sent in check donations for the December 21st event. And to make it perfectly clear, the response was a total of 15 players league-wide, not 15 players per team.

Matt Birk has noted that, "The NFLPA has attacked Gridiron Greats, saying these retired players are in the predicament they are in because of their own doing, because of their own bad choices." Apparently, Brees got that memo, but not Birk's letter.

The NFL blames the NFLPA and the NFLPA blames the victims. And the history of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) but muddies the water some more. One needs a veritable map to follow the history of the CBA and its history with the NFLPA. It is but a fragmented tale that contains twists and turns including strikes, lockouts, and continual changes in player benefits.

Unfortunately, some former players' benefits are still tied to whichever CBA was in place at the time of their playing careers or the actual years in which they played. Also, it is important to point out that for players who played at a time before the multi-million dollar contract or who had a shortened career, pension benefits are based upon the number of years played, not on earnings. In either case, it is a lose-lose for many.

In fact, the poor administration of pension and healthcare benefits certainly cannot be laid at the feet of former players, as the NFLPA would like to do. And given that the NFL administers the actual benefits fund, that is exactly what happens.

But it has only been since 1993 that a more encompassing CBA was installed, following years of sub-standard pension and healthcare benefits that began in 1959. At that time, the benefit plan kicked in at age 65 and was administered by team owners.

The Total Disability and Permanent (T&P) disability benefits and line-of-duty (LOD) disability benefits were established in 1970. However, to date, the criteria and claim filing procedures lack transparency and clarity for players. In general, only 42% of those applying for disability benefits ever receive them. The number of players who have applied for disability benefits and were denied them remains information hard to come by.

A former player may be disabled and suffer from a condition or illness that interferes with his activities of daily living from either a direct or an indirect result of playing in the NFL. Yet he may not be receiving any disability benefits at all.

And most stunning of all is that there is no comprehensive data kept about the health of former players that has either been collected or maintained by the NFL, the NFLPA, or a third party designate. That means that out of the 13,000 former NFL players, of which 7,900 are fully vested for benefits, there is only documentation available for those players that have filed disability claims.

Furthermore, neither the NFL nor the NFLPA collects any data on the number or percentage of players who retire because of an injury or injuries.

It cannot be made more clear that unlike other professional sports, the NFL player injury rates are nearly eight times higher than that of any other professional sports league, including the NHL, NBA, and MLB, as well as NASCAR. And for that reason, it has become more and more difficult for former NFL players to overcome the hurdles necessary to receive the health and disability benefits they desperately need.

The NFL is a collision sport, rather than just a contact sport, which the NFL routinely says it is. And the physical toll that it exacts upon its players, especially for those who play many more years than the average player that lasts 3-4 years in the league, the long-term health impact may not be realized for several years after leaving the game.

When a player walks away from the NFL without catastrophic injury, it should not relieve the NFL or the NFLPA of their obligation to allow players to continue some semblance of an adequate quality of life thereafter.

During this economic crisis, big business has shown that it takes no prisoners. But let us hope that the NFL, its players union, and its individual players give a bit more thought to those who came before them. And let not the economy be the convenient excuse to not do the right thing.

Pay it forward.

Comments and Conversation

February 5, 2009

Matthew Anderson:

Diane Grassi’s piece is extremely informative. It not only illumines the “chinks” in NFL armor but also hails another notion. It seems that even the NFLPA, originally formed to counter the excesses of unbridled NFL management, has become an institution of its own with a need to self-perpetuate at any cost. Ms. Grassi deserves kudos for her incisive work.

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