Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Did the NFL want to take care of discarded players benefits back in 1992?

For New York Giants backers, this Sunday's contest against the Washington Redskins could be the team's final game for a long, long time. The National Football League's Collective Bargaining Agreement ends on March 3 and should the owners and players not reach an agreement, the NFL's off season will be silent except for the annual draft which will take place as scheduled.
There will be no free agency, no mini-camps, no organized team activities, no overlooked in the draft college kids signing up with teams and no training camp until the owners and players reach an accord. Meanwhile the players will challenge the legitimacy of the owners' war chest, which is being stuffed with money from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (FOX), General Electric's NBC, Summer Redstone's CBS, Disney's ESPN and DirecTV. The players filed a complaint to Special Master of the National Football League Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor. Burbank was appointed by a federal court in 2002 to handle disputes between the owners and players.
The players could decertify the association, which means that the NFLPA could go to court and ask for an injunction to end the lockout. The argument would be that the players are independent contractor and not part of the association. The owners plan to end players benefits as soon as the lockout starts.
The dispute comes down to money. The NFL owners want to cut back revenues given to the players from 59 to 48 percent and cut salaries by 18 percent. But there are some other issues such as pensions and health benefits. Health benefits should emerge as a major issue, but it isn't.
Week after week, National Football League players are getting hurt in alarming numbers. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers, who was cleared to play against the Giants last Sunday, has had two concussions this year. A concussion is a brain injury. Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie is done for the season after getting his "bell rung" again. The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is on the field because of a head injury that 2010 Eagles starting quarterback Kevin Kolb went down with a head injury.
If there is a fortunate part of all the head injuries that have occurred is that the NFL is somewhat more diligent in taking care of head injuries than the league was say back in 1980. The league is urging players who have suffered head injuries to come forward and if a teammate notices something awry with a player he suspects has suffered a head injury to speak up.
But football players, being tough, macho guys who succumb to peer pressure get on the field as soon as they are "well enough" to perform.
Football players have "sucked it up" since the game was invented and suffered life changing injuries as a result of their actions on the field. A lot of NFL players now are getting government assistance through social security disability and Medicare because they have pre-existing conditions and cannot get health benefits. The government taking care of discarded players issue that the news media has ignored for whatever reason known only to those who decide what "news" to cover.
Here is a question that the discarded players should be asking. Did the NFL's collective bargaining negotiator Harold Henderson in 1992 propose that the league take care of old players who had no medical coverage and that the players association decided that free agency for the players was more important? A good number of former players who are uninsurable because of pre-existing conditions think it is solely the responsibility of present-day NFL owners to take care of them. However, the owners and players association collective bargained working conditions and the players association failed to protect their membership's future health needs in the 1982 and 1987 collective bargaining agreements.
The players association took the money always.
The wife of a 1960s-era player though thinks NFL owners should be responsible for health issues that were caused by injuries on the field because "the fact that the players were required to play with injuries that could and did cause long-term damage and sometimes death, does make them legally responsible." The former player wife added that she hope someone will come along and take on the NFL owners to get help for those in bad shape. "Attorneys will take a closer look at the notion that the retired players (many who did not even participate in collective bargaining) signed their rights away in the process of collective bargaining. In that same vein, once the players retire, they have no voice and are unable to restate their cause, particularly with all the current evidence of trauma and even death caused by concussions."
Head injuries have always been a part of the NFL. The 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon told NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Packers coach Vince Lombardi along with the CBS Director of Sports Bill McPhail at a Los Angeles bar prior to the 1967 American Football League-National Football League Championship Game (now known as the "first" Super Bowl) that head injuries began to rise once face guards were put onto helmets which occurred in 1955.
The National Football League Players Association during the Ed Garvey and Gene Upshaw days when they led the players has always been about money and free agency with scant mention of benefits. The NFLPA website on the collective bargaining page confirms the notion.
"A simplistic account of the 1974 and 1982 bargaining efforts would say that the players fell short of their goals on both occasions. In 1974, they set out to achieve free agency, but the 1977 CBA restricted free agent movement almost as much as the old system. In 1982, they set out to achieve a defined percentage of the gross revenues and a "pay for performance" system, but the old system continued along with improved benefits.
"A more enlightened view of those negotiations, however, was that the battle was never going to be won in the short term. The owners, who had their way for most of the league's history, were a powerful group that always stuck together in dealings with the players. Because they shared most of their revenues, they were unlike the Major League Baseball owners, whose internal conflicts made them less than a united front when dealing with the players union. The NFL owners could always outlast the players, since players had short careers and an inherent fear of making careers even shorter "by taking a stand."
"These realities were proven again in 1987, when the NFLPA opened negotiations for a new CBA to succeed the 1982 agreement. A lot had happened in the interim. Ed Garvey left his job as Executive Director to enter politics. Gene Upshaw, who had served as NFLPA President during the 1982 strike, was a natural choice to succeed Garvey since he had experience as a player and union leader and also as a negotiator of the 1977 and 1982 agreements. The player reps unanimously elected Upshaw as Executive Director in June of 1983, and the organization changed significantly thereafter.

"Gene's primary objective was simple — he wanted to have the players determine the goals of the organization. He worked closely with Jeff Van Note (NFLPA President 1983), Tom Condon (NFLPA President 1984-1986) and Marvin Powell (NFLPA President 1986-1988) to meet with and poll the players on their bargaining objectives in preparation for the expiration of the 1982 CBA in 1987. The results of a league-wide player survey taken in 1986 made clear that the players viewed free agency as their highest priority. This was not surprising, since only one player even got an offer from another club during the entire term of the 1982 CBA, despite the fact that over 500 players had become "free agents" under the system.
"While benefits were improved in the 1982 CBA, players still had no choice as to where they would play since the system essentially prohibited free agent movement. At the same time, revenue disparities increased among the teams to the point where, unlike in 1982, an owner could increase his revenues through luxury box sales and other sources if he could assemble a winning team. In other words, free agency could work for players in 1987 if they could ever force owners to agree to it. That, however, would not be easy."
In November 2010, the owners made a proposal to help out the former and discarded players even though NFL owners have no legal obligation to give them more money or provide health benefits. The league and the players association have been talking about taking care of the former players health benefits but the associations' turned down a deal that might have covered about 2,500 of 3,200 players because the association's reps didn't feel that TransAmerica would insure 700 of the discarded players because of pre-existing conditions. The NFLPA wanted all 3,200 players insured.
Rogers, Collie, Kolb have better benefits than the players who played in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The players finally got better benefits in the 1993 collective bargaining agreement but that only took care of players who were fortunate enough to be on the team rosters in 1993.
The retired and discarded players should be asking whether Harold Henderson and the NFL really did make a proposal in 1992 to take care of them. And if that was on the table, what happened to the proposal?
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at or amazonkindle. He can be reached at

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