SBJ/May 23-29, 2011/Opinion

In current dispute, ‘voice’ of retired NFL players must be heard

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On April 4, the NFL wrote to all retired players that it understood the challenges that they and their families faced because of the inadequate pensions and other flaws in disability plans for retired players. The league and its owners acknowledged that there would have to be significant improvements in the treatment of and benefits for retired players in order to make the necessary “measurable impact on the people who made football great.”

In closing the letter, the league and its owners confessed that the “voice” of the retirees “needs to be heard.” Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league have taken a good first step in recognizing the deficiencies that exist in regard to the benefits available to retired players, and the need for retired players to have a meaningful seat and voice at the table during any further negotiations between the league and current players.

What follows is my attempt to represent that voice. While we eagerly await the improvement in pension and benefits that the NFL has promised, we realize that nothing will happen without a resolution of the ongoing dispute.

In his op-ed column in the April 26 Wall Street Journal, Goodell states, “For many years, the collectively bargained system — which has given the [NFLPA] enhanced free agency and capped the amount that owners spend on salaries — has worked enormously well for the NFL, for NFL players, and for NFL fans.” While it is unclear if he is referring to retired players, let me set the record straight: The collectively bargained system has not worked “enormously well” for retired NFL players. The fact that the system is not working “enormously well” for retired players is glaringly reflected in the 2007 congressional hearings on why the NFL’s retirement system is not working; by the Department of Labor putting the league’s retirement plan on “endangered status” in 2010; and in the Congressional Research Service’s 2008 report on NFL players’ disabilities and benefits. The past system simply has not worked “enormously well” in providing the level of care and support that many retired NFL players need.

Goodell points out that the NFL has grown to be by far the most popular spectator sport in the United States. Amid all its striking success, and what Forbes magazine estimates to be an average annual team profit of $33.4 million, the NFL owners proposed an 18 percent reduction in the share of league revenue to players. After a year of revelations about the dangers of concussions, brain injuries and shortened life spans experienced by retired NFL players, current players wondered why they were being asked to make a substantial sacrifice in their compensation. The demand was all the more perplexing in light of the league’s denial and neglect of redressing these real injuries.

Goodell’s op-ed piece talks about the need to restrain the free market, unionize players, engage in extensive revenue sharing among the clubs and engender competitive balance across all teams. These are half-truths that are more misleading than enlightening and do not even begin to address many meaningful issues.

First, why are players’ medical insurance benefits cut off five years after retirement, even when it has been demonstrated that most retired players face a lifetime of health problems? Why are retired players’ pension benefits so glaringly inadequate and so materially underfunded that the Department of Labor placed them on the endangered list?

Second, although Goodell insists that all of the NFL’s successful institutions and practices would disappear without a collective-bargaining agreement, there is reason to believe otherwise. For starters, most large businesses that are not unionized still offer their workers retirement benefits. Additionally, the NFL amateur draft has existed since the 1930s, decades before collective bargaining came to professional sports. Finally, if particular labor market restraints are important, then the league need not depend on a labor exemption gained through arm’s length collective bargaining to maintain them; it should freely seek to defend such restraints in court, consistent with antitrust principles to which every other business in this country is accountable.

Third, a report commissioned by the NFL notes that players “are elite athletes of the highest order.” There are an estimated 21,000 such retired NFL athletes; large men with broken bodies, herniated disks, arterial disease, and higher rates of arthritis, dementia and all types of chronic pain than comparable men in the general population. Men who underwent brain surgeries, experienced grand mal seizures, and concussions resulting from the vicious collisions they took for the good of the game. When he died, Johnny Unitas’ “golden arm was nothing more than a lead weight.” The NFL denied his disability claim.

Curt Marsh said it best: “When I came to my first NFL camp, it was like I was a tall, cold can of beer. They popped the top, and all that energy and desire and ability poured out. I gave of myself with the same passion that I had in high school and college. When I was empty, when I had no more to give, they just crumpled me up and threw me on the garbage heap. Then they grabbed another new can and popped him open, and he flowed out until he was empty.”
Finally, let me be clear that although my response is directed at Goodell’s comments, retired players are also dependent upon the good will of current players. It is just as much in the interests of the retired players as it is the fans to create a resolution so that we have football played in 2011 — remember, we are now fans too.

All in favor?

Carl Eller
Minneapolis

Eller played defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. He is president of the Retired Players Association.

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