Both Owners and Players Responsible for Retired Football Players Plight
By Evan Weiner
September 5, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- Another National Football League season is starting and for the first time ever, the NFL seems to be taking a closer look at concussions and head injuries. There is a poster in locker rooms urging players to be vigilant about head injuries, But the NFL has known about head injuries for decades. During the week leading up to the first American Football League-National Football League World Championship Game in Los Angeles in January 1967, football people were talking about head injuries at a bar in a Los Angeles area hotel. Among the people at the bar were NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, CBS Sports President Bill McPhail and the 1940 Heisman Trophy Winner Tom Harmon.
Harmon told the assembled people at the watering hole that once face bars were put onto helmets, the game changed. The head because of the helmet with bars became a weapon. Players would have their bells rung but it was a part of football. The head was better protected, so they thought, after more modern ones replaced the leather helmets and the bars were attached to protect the face.
But Harmon knew better in 1967 and a lot of former players are paying the price because no one listened to Tom Harmon at that Los Angeles hotel bar.
That conversation took place 43 years ago. In those 43 years, many players have suffered because of getting their bell rung. The owners and players didn’t care about the long-term possibilities that players would become disabled because of football-related injuries in any collective bargaining agreements for their post career medical care.
The object was getting the best money deal done.
Who is to blame?
The owners or players? The TV executives who underwrote the enterprise? The marketing partners? The fans?
That is a difficult question to answer.
The owners of the 1950s had no idea what they had in terms of a business. The players of those days played football as a hobby because it is one of two jobs they held. There really wasn’t much scrutiny of injuries in those days. Players fought to stay on 33 man rosters because they wanted to play football. There was no money in the game for anyone so it was all about playing football.
In the 1960s, the National Football League and the American Football League Players Associations were just looking for financial gains as television money began flooding the industry. If there were any player agents in those days, they also were looking for financial gains. No one was looking to what would happen to the former players as they got older and how they would be cared for because of football injuries.
No one it seemed worried about the long term of players who were banging into one another at high speeds and using their heads as part of their blocking strategies. A look at various players associations contract talks with the owners and labor actions is an interesting study.
The players association leadership failed their membership. It was all about money and not about safety and health issues after a playing career was done. The 1974-5 labor talks centered on getting players the right to become free agents and breaking a league ruling that required the commissioner to decide on a compensation package for a team should a player decide to go elsewhere after playing out his option.
The NFLPA’s rallying cry was “No Freedom, No Football.”
"The players were with a team in perpetuity," recalled Randy Vataha, the New England Patriots player representative. "No team was going to give up two first round draft picks to sign a free agent.
The NFL's policy was referred to as the "Rozelle Rule," and the NFLPA membership wanted free agency among their 58 demands in 1975. While the Players Association leadership was prepared to sit out until a new bargaining agreement was hammered out, some of the rank and file wasn't.
By the early part of August, about a quarter of the NFLPA crossed the picket lines. On August 11, Association President Ed Garvey sent his players back to work after a federal mediator suggested a 14-day cooling off period. Garvey would pursue another tactic, the Mackey case.
John Mackey was the one time President of the NFLPA.
The New England Patriots struck the final preseason-season game of the 1975 season. The contest with the New York Jets at New Haven was the first ever cancelled game due to a labor impasse.
"There had been a cooling off period and by mid-season 1974, nothing was happening. The players weren't going to strike and there were no negotiations," said Vataha. The guys on the Patriots asked for an update on the negotiations. They were either going to strike or take the last offer on the table.
"So we didn't play and that week we had some meaningful negotiations. But it was evident that we were going to go ahead with the Mackey case."
The Mackey case began on February 3, 1975. It finally ended for the NFL after the 1987 strike. The NFL did cut deals with the players in 1977 and 1982. The only alternative or leverage the players had in the 1970s was the Canadian Football League which signed Joe Theisman, Tom Cousineau and Vince Ferragammo over the years. But the CFL really posed a threat to the NFL.
The players struck on September 20, 1982 and a collective bargaining agreement was ratified on November 17. Seven games were cancelled as a result of the 57-day walkout.
The four-year deal featured an extension of the college draft through the 1992 season; a minimum salary, training camp and post-season pay were increased along with player medical insurance and retirement benefits. There was also a severance package included after a player was cut.
"I think any time you strike, you strike for a reason," said Harry Carson who was playing with the Giants in 1982. "If we could get some benefit from it, I think it was worth it.
"From the first strike in 1982, we got the severance package as part of it, but we should have gotten more. There were a lot of guys who were not necessarily striking for free agency but they wanted more money.
"Looking at it in retrospect, I think the players should have struck for much better benefits because the NFL probably has the worst retirement package in sports."
Twenty-eight years later, the NFL’s retirees still have a rotten retirement package when compared with former baseball players and other athletes.
Carson said one of the reasons football players have not done as well in negotiations with their owners as say their baseball counterparts is solidarity.
"You don't have the same thing. You have so many players and players have their own agendas. It's hard to keep players together once they go on strike.
"Some players are going to cross the picket line and once that happens, you are not going to succeed."
Carson’s words were direct and strong about NFLPA solidarity. Retired players today are still a fractious bunch with different agendas and for the most part have been tossed aside by present day NFL owners and by the players association. The owners care about their team of today, the players association cares about their players of today. The former players have veered off in different directions in their pursuit of getting health insurance and more retirement money.
The NFL was again forced to deal with it players association in 1987.
The players decided to strike after the second week of the season and the NFL reverted to its 1974 tactic of bringing in rookies and free agents and play replacement games. The league cancelled the third week's schedule and resumed with the week four matchups.
In 2000, Hollywood made a movie about the 1987 strike called "Replacements" which was based on the Washington Redskins.
Some teams scouted the best available talent and tried to put together a strong replacement team. Other teams took chunks of local semipro teams, like the New York Giants, and hoped for the best. Others like Philadelphia Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan didn't take the replacement games too seriously and wanted for the players to return.
Like in 1974, veterans crossed the picket lines and by October 25, the NFL was able to claim victory. The players reverted to their old standby; plan B that was court action and that set off years of litigation.
Dallas Cowboy President Tex Schramm was the main force behind the ploy of bringing in replacement players. The league lost a significant amount of games, eight, in 1982 and that was not going to happen again in 1987.
"It was a great time and a lot of fun," said Charley Casserly who was part of the Redskins front office at that time. "Really, the interesting thing was we put together a time, the whole organization and Joe Gibbs did a great job coaching them. Nobody crossed the picket line and we beat two teams, St. Louis and Dallas on that climatic Monday Night that had about 10-12 players cross the picket line. The Dallas team had (Tony) Dorsett, Randy White, Danny White, Too Tall Jones. It was quite a time."
The NFL teams who did compete for players for Schramm's replacement league look anyway for players. Casserley found four players in a Richmond, Virginia halfway house who were playing for a minor league team including Tony Robinson who was the quarterback of the replacement team that beat Dallas.
"We did have a little philosophy on it," Casserly continued. "We wanted players that knew the system. We had to put together a team in 10 days to go play a game. Football unlike all other sports is really a team sport. So we wanted guys who knew the Joe Gibbs system. So we started with players who had been in our camp that year and been in our camp the year before and had been in camps with the Gibbs/(Don)
Coryell system. We got players from everywhere.
"Obviously NFL cuts, but we got players from Canada, players who were cut in Canada. We wanted players in camp who were healthy and ready to go."
The players crumbled quickly in 1987 but years later Dave Jennings, who was a New York Jet punter at the time, thinks the showdown with the owners was worth it.
"The players were not that interested in a long term strike, they were looking at the next paycheck," said Jennings. "It's tough to get players to strike and stay together. In 1987, it was a shorter strike and we had the court cases working and eventually it worked out for us.
"We got nothing from the 1987 strike, we didn't get anything directly, but indirectly we got free agency and you see what happened. Free agency works."
Free agency might have worked but it didn’t help John Mackey. The head injuries he suffered in his career eventually caught up to him. The NFL Players Association initially refused to pay a disability income because there was proven link between brain injury and playing football. The league and the NFL Players' Association were almost shamed into coming up with a program that was named after Mackey's number. It provides $88,000-a-year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care.
The league and players helped Mackey but there are so many who have fallen through the cracks and depend on government programs to pay their medical bills.
The modern players got money but were failed by their union representatives and agents. The owners who didn’t look out for them failed them. The union led by Ed Garvey and then Gene Upshaw did not take care of their constituency. They got the players more money for playing but failed to take care of the players once they were useless to any teams.
Evan Weiner is an award winning author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Business and Politics of Sports.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org