Discarded NFL players are often forgotten in retirement
FRIDAY, 23 JULY 2010 16:15
BY EVAN WEINER
THE POLITICS OF SPORTS BUSINESS
As National Football League training camps begin to open up around the country, (the New York Jets in Cortland, N.Y. on Aug. 1, the New York Giants in Albany, N.Y. also on Aug. 1 and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa. on Monday) some 2,560 players are getting ready for what has become an annual ritual — two a day sessions upon the broiling sun to prove they belong on the field. Eventually only 1,696 of them will make teams. A number of the 864 players who are "cut" might end up on practice squads where they make a minimum of $5,200 a week to hone their skills. Some of the players will be placed on injured reserve and will either return to the field or get cut when they are deemed healthy. Each team can keep as many as eight players on the payroll (practice squad) which means 256 players might get another shot at a roster spot when a team loses a player to an injury.
Football is a tough game. Americans have been sold on football's brutality since the October 31, 1960 CBS documentary called "The Violent World of Sam Huff" which was narrated by Walter Cronkite. Yes TV networks once did documentaries in a time when TV news did reporting, research and presented facts and not worried about being profitable. In the 1970s, Al Primo convinced TV executives that news could be turned into entertainment and news divisions could make really big money. Cable TV news would take Primo's idea to the next level and began to feature raving lunatics screaming about their viewpoint because it made for "good TV". Huff was a linebacker with the New York Giants and was the first NFL player ever to appear on the cover of Time magazine on November 30, 1959. Huff's job was to "hurt people" because football was a "man's game" according to the accompanying Time magazine column.
The Huff piece came about 10 months after the "greatest football game ever" when Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to an overtime win over the Giants in the NFL Championship Game, a game that captivated Americans and propelled the NFL from a "mom and pop" operation into the big time. Huff wasn't the best linebacker in the NFL but played for the "glamorous" New York Giants, a team that caught the fancy of Madison Avenue's advertising community and the TV networks which were headquartered in New York. Huff's Giants didn't win the 1958 championship, Baltimore did but Baltimore was led by a quiet crew cut quarterback named Unitas while the Giants had the handsome Frank Gifford and the tough as nails Huff.
Sam Huff became a successful businessman after his career. Unitas didn't. The quarterback who put the NFL on the map couldn't use his right hand as he got older because of a tendon injury he suffered in 1968. He has two knee replacements and heart bypass was denied disability. Unitas died in 2002 but the denial of disability to the quarterback who put the NFL on the map still draws the ire of former players in tough spots.
In 2007, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, the chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, held a hearing because she wanted to have "an open discussion on the fairness of the system to severely disabled retired players." It was the start of drawing attention to the plight of retired NFL players. Johnny Unitas' widow Sandra was in Washington watching the hearings.
Huff in his Time magazine interview in 1959 didn't say anything new. A Life magazine had a cover story on December 3, 1971 "Suicide Squad Football's most violent men." Suicide squads have been given a more genteel name — "Special Teams" — but that's where rookies have to first earn their stripes in the NFL. Special teams are the worst assignments on the team and punt returns can be especially dangerous.
Football has been wrestling with players been injured and maimed for more than a century. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 told college presidents to clean up the game or he would ban football because of the number of deaths and injuries associated with the game.
New rules were implemented but the game remained violent and more than a century later, it seems that not much has changed. Players are still one play away from ending their career and that leads to the question.
Do the young players and some of the veterans who are about to go to camp know what they are getting into? If you listen to Dave Pear (and other older retired players who suffered life changing injuries playing football), the answer is no. Pear played in the NFL for six years as a defensive tackle between 1975 and 1980 with the Baltimore Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders. He played in one Pro Bowl and was a member of the Raiders Super Bowl XV championship team in 1980-81. Despite all of that, Pear wished he never played football.
"They think they are but no they are not," said Pear who broke his neck during his career and is facing hip replacement surgery in the very near future. "I don't begrudge the active players one penny and I suggest to them save as much as you can because when they become 40, 45, 50, 55, if things don't change, they are going to need the money because the union won't support them."
Pear is uninsurable and depends on government support such as Medicare and social security disability for his medical needs. But he might be one of the lucky ones as he has his wife's support and seems willing to take on the NFL and the NFLPA in an effort to get access to his benefits. He is one of the few with George Visger, Brent Boyd, Conrad Dobler and Mike Ditka who are speaking out about what they feel is the NFL and the NFLPA's abandonment of broken down old players who are in need.
But a lot of former players are not talking, partly because they have been trained since junior high school to "suck it up" and "be a man" which is the football mentality. Most players who play college football have no skills when they leave college because they don't get an education as they are too busy playing football. Sunday's warriors have been beaten over their heads since they were small and are team players even in retirement.
Retired players face high rates of divorce, face bankruptcies and have to put up with the pain of serious injuries on a daily basis. Alzheimer's disease and memory-related diseases in former players between the ages of 30 and 49 are 19 percent higher than average in that population pool.
"Football players wear a mask," said Pear. "All people see is a number. We are just a number that is how football works. Nobody knows how many retired players there (in dire straits)."
The House of Representatives has been holding hearings and monitoring the head injuries situation around the NFL. In 2009, several House members did not think NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or the league has done enough to care for players with head injuries — concussions — and that the league really has not made much of an effort investigating long time damage from concussions suffered by players who worked in the NFL as players.
Pear and other retirees have been after the league and the players association to do more and it wasn't until Congress stepped in and began hearings in 2007 that the league and the players association took notice.
The NFL and researches have been at odds over the sports head trauma and later cognitive degeneration. Researchers looking into the relationship between concussions and cognitive problems have seen a link while the NFL's medical committee on concussions has not. On December 3, 2009, the NFL changed the league's concussion policy telling teams that if a player shows any significant sign of concussion that player must be removed from a game or practice and cannot return to the field on the same day.
New NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith told the retirees that "the rift is over" between the old players and the union and that help for those in need is on the way. But Pear doesn't see any evidence that the rift is really over. "The NFL grosses about eight and a half billion dollars a year, so where is the dough? (Former Executive Director, the late Gene) Upshaw once said we could not receive a pension and disability. Now we have the Gene Upshaw Dire Need Fund, but nothing has changed. So (to today's players) save every penny because once they realize they need medical insurance and can't get it."
When the cheering stops for a good number NFL players, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Because of the injuries, a good many players became medical liabilities and are uninsurable. The National Football League does not guarantee contracts and if you are a marginal player who was injured, as soon as a doctor pronounces you healthy, you could be cut and your contract just ends with some severance pay.
Players of Pear's era got no severance and there was no guaranteed money given as a bonus. The bonus money is the only payment that a player will get, all players are then on a week-to-week basis. Virtually all of the players are replaceable on the spot.
"I know there is no pot of gold," said Pear. "In football, you are only a number. When you are a professional football player, you think you are invincible but when you get hit in the head, you injure your brain and life becomes different. We want our disability, our pension and future medical benefits. We don't want charity"
The football culture is different than real life. Football players grow up in a paramilitary setting as one long time NFL owner once said. That may explain why the National Football League Players Association has never been as effective as the Major League Baseball Players Association or the National Basketball Players Association or the National Hockey League Players Association in delivering guaranteed contracts to their members. The NFLPA seemingly has been pushing salaries up throughout the last four decades and not worrying about aftercare for former members until recently when the league and the players association were hauled before Congress to talk about the plight of former players.
"What they have done is create a myth," said Pear. "They have misled these young men telling them to be tough and work through injuries. Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL guarantee disability, pensions and medical their career. They (the NFL and the NFLPA) have convinced up that we do not deserve it. They have not allowed us access to our benefits which is not right and that has hurt players and players' families."
The National Football league Players Association has not kept records detailing the difficulties former union members have had in their post-football lives. One of the problems is that most players last 3 1/2 years in the league and pensions for players with three years in the league is not much. But the 3 1/2 year average is deceiving. Running backs may last 2.2 years and not be eligible for a pension or benefits as an example. The NFL may be recognized as the National Football League, but people in the NFL know the initials NFL as Not For Long. A good number of players never make it to where they can apply for a pension or disability and by the time they get to the NFL, after surviving high school and college ball, they probably have had some injury baggage. There is a disability benefit plan but according to Pear, it is more lip service than reality.
Congress, for the most part, has left the NFL issue behind although the House could call the NFL and NFLPA before them at any time. Pear is of the opinion that Congress, a class action suit by former players and chipping away at the NFL's image are three areas where the retired players can make the most strides.
The class action suit demanding compensation for injuries would need a law firm with deep pockets willing to take on the NFL and would require players to step up and talk about their problems. It might be easier to find a law firm than getting macho tough guys to go public. There is still a stigma attached even in retirement for players who don't toe the company line. Congress can go after two of the league's antitrust exemptions, the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 which allowed the NFL to package all of the league's teams (14 in 1961, 32 in 2010) and sell the league to over-the-air and cable TV networks as one entity and undo the 1966 American Football league and National football League merger. That is highly unlikely but the NFL can be vulnerable there. The NFL does a remarkable job selling the product — football — but can the NFL afford images of broken down old stars and grunts who are relatively young, in their 40s and 50s parading around with ailments suffered in games?
It is unlikely that NFL media partners, Sumner Redstone's CBS (or any of the Redstone's holdings including Showtime), General Electric's NBC, Disney's ESPN or Rupert Murdoch's FOX businesses (including Fox News Channel or the FOX Business Channel) would tackle the issue. Newspapers are not partners with the NFL but newspaper sports sections depend on the NFL to fill up space for content and hope that readers will pay attention to ads and some of the ads are football related wrapped around Thanksgiving, weekends and playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl. A reporter sniffing around might lose access to the NFL and most writers would rather give up their right arms than be denied NFL access. The NFL controls the narrative and while Time Warner (the cable TV programmer and channel stock side not the stock side that owns Time Warner Cable) no longer has an NFL TV contract and could do pieces on CNN (a news network that hardly covers news), Time Warner might not want to show the NFL in a bad light. Image or perceived perception is everything to the NFL.
Pear fits into the study of short term memory problems. "There is a problem, you don't know what it is, as a player you are taught to work through it, but as you get older....I wished I never played. I enjoyed playing football when I was not injured. I played with a broken neck for two years. It wasn't worth it."
The image of the NFL, the romance of training camp, the start of the season goes fully on display by Aug. 1. The question for the 2,560 players who are in training camps is simple? Do you know what you are getting into? It is a question that only they can answer and perhaps instead of worrying about how much money they can get in the ongoing collective bargaining agreement, the players should check off safety concerns for both active and retired players (even though retired players don't pay the salaries of NFLPA staff) as their top priority in the next CBA.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio and TV commentator and speaking on "The Politics of Sports Business." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org