Attention Drew Brees, Sam Huff has a few questions for you
TUESDAY, 29 MARCH 2011 08:40
BY EVAN WEINER
You get the feeling from Sam Huff that he would not mind suiting up for one more game, maybe at the old Yankee Stadium as a New York Giants linebacker or at the old D. C. Stadium in Washington performing the same duties for the Redskins and lining up against New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
Huff, who was there at the beginning of the National Football league Players Association in 1956, represents a good many players of his era like Charlie Sumner and Pat Matson among others has no use for Brees. The New Orleans Saints quarterback, according to the old players, apparently thinks it is not the responsibility of the National Football Players Association to look after the players who literally built the industry in the 1950s (and before), 1960s and 1970s.
His statement made in 2010 still resonates among former players such as Huff, Matson and Sumner.
“There’s some guys out there that have made bad business decisions,” Brees said. “They took their pensions early because they never went out and got a job. 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.”
Brees apparently did not know – or he just parroted NFLPA talking points. According to Eugene (Mercury) Morris, the Miami Dolphins running back in the 1970s, Brees' comment was just a repeat statement that was made three years earlier.
“The statements by Drew Brees on retired players came from ''talking points'' from Doug Ell," Morris said of the labor lawyer who works with the NFLPA. "Those same comments appear in the Congressional Record from the June 26th 2007 hearing called ''An Uneven Playing Field?''
Brees, who is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that was filed on March 11 in an attempt to end the NFL owners’ lockout, may have missed another history lesson that is sure to come up in a Minneapolis courtroom in the case in two weeks. After the failed 1987 NFLPA strike (when the association could not hold the membership together and many stars including Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana and Howie Long crossed the “picket line” along with ordinary players), the association decertified in order to file a lawsuit against the NFL.
The National Football League Players Association, after disbanding in 1989, said it would never again represent the players. Four years later, the NFLPA, with the same leadership in place, reorganized and represented the players again.
Brees and the players will have a difficult time explaining the NFLPA’s actions in 1989 and 1993. The NFL filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPA in February and claimed the NFLPA was not negotiating in good faith in the then on-going talks aimed at reaching a new collective bargaining agreement. The heart of the argument is the 1989 association decertification, which led to the Freeman McNeil antitrust lawsuit against the league.
The NFL owners have maintained that the players planned to use the decertification card in the 2011 talks as leverage. The NFLPA has dismissed the NFL owners concern.
Sam Huff played between 1956 and 1969 when players -- with the exception of Joe Namath -- were not highly paid. Whatever gains players made by selling their services to completing leagues (the old and established NFL and the new AFL -- the fifth attempt by NFL rival promoters to successful stage a league) when they finished college irritated the owners.
In fact, former National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle went before Congress in 1966 begging for Congressional permission to violate antitrust laws so that the American Football league and National Football League could merge because a bidding war for players was becoming too costly for both leagues. Rozelle got the merger with some old fashioned horse-trading. He got key yes votes from Senator Russell Long and Congressman Hale Boggs (both of Louisiana) in exchange for an expansion franchise in New Orleans.
The merger brought an end to the bidding war for talent and suppressed salaries. It probably stripped collective bargaining rights away from the players in both leagues. The NFLPA opposed the merger but the union’s complaints fell on deaf ears in Congress.
“Getting $500 a year (raise) was a big deal from (Giants owner) Wellington (Mara),’’ Huff said. “When I was drafted I went with Wellington to the Ed Sullivan show. He offered me $5.000 (in 1956) and that was so much money, more than my dad ever made in the coal mines (of West Virginia). I told Mr. Mara I can't sign and let me check with my coach Art Lewis. He had played in the NFL. I called Coach Lewis and said here I am in New York and (the Giants) offered me a contract for $5,000. Pappy -- we called him Pappy -- said sign before he changes his mind.”
Sam Huff was the face of the New York Giants and maybe the NFL during his playing days. He was on the cover of a November 1959 issue of Time magazine (the first ever NFL player on that magazine's cover) and the star of the CBS News documentary (yes at one time network news was a crown jewel of CBS and NBC and the networks did do documentaries) "The Violent World of Sam Huff (narrated by Walter Cronkite) in 1960.
Huff helped popularize the NFL and has this advice for Brees.
“Drew Brees should keep his mouth shut," Huff said from West Virginia on Thursday. “We (he and his Giants teammates from the 1950s and 1960s) would put a target on his back. I don't understand all this crap. We formed it (the NFLPA). Kyle Rote (the Giants end), he did it and put it all together.”
Despite being the face of the Giants and the NFL, Huff's final salary with the Giants in 1963 was $19,000. He made more money in Washington, his first contract with the Redskins was for $30,000 in 1964. But Huff didn't become rich from playing football and his second career with Marriott along with being part of the Washington Redskins radio broadcasts made him secure.
Back in Huff's day, pro football was seen as a stepping-stone to another career. No one really thought football was a lifelong profession and no one gave a second thought to the post career problems that players developed from playing in "The Violent World of Sam Huff."
No one has a number because a lot of former players just don't out and talk about their problems. There does seem to be a post-career record of multiple operations for knee, hip and shoulder replacements, depression, spousal abuse, finance problems, homelessness, drug addiction, dementia, thoughts of suicide and suicide. Vested veterans get some post-career health benefits but only for five years. Players from Huff's era get meager pensions and if they didn't get a second job after their career (or are unable to work because of injuries), they ended up on the public dole before the age of 65 on social security insurance and Medicare. The cost to the taxpayers may be in the billions caring for discarded players.
The players from the 1950s just wanted better playing conditions but the owners never took the players very seriously. Huff was out of the NFL when the players struck in 1968. The NFLPA has always had a difficult time in keeping the association's membership together. That is a far cry from what football is all about according to Huff.
“It is about teamwork, teammates working together if you go on strike. (Gene) Upshaw could have been a great leader but when he became the power (Executive Director in 1983) he took away everybody's vote. It became all about money. I know what unions are; my father was in the United Mine Workers. The NFLPA is just an organization. (Current NFLPA head DeMaurice) Smith says it is one locker room (for the present and past players). De Smith never played football; neither did (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell. It is a mess.
“De Smith said all the right things (about taking care of the old players) but he hasn't followed through. The worst thing is (the former players) didn't make much money but they made the game. Gene Upshaw changed all of it. He was a turncoat. It is all about money.”
In 1974, the NFLPA's slogan was Freedom Now, as the association pushed for free agency. In 1982, it was "Money Now" as the players pushed for free agency and more money. There seemed to be no long-term plan for the players for good pensions and long-term health care.
Huff wondered how two guys with no football experience (Goodell and Smith) without people around them with football experience could "make up the rules if you never played."
Players who may have suffered long-term injuries from playing in the NFL (or three different versions of the American Football League or the All America Football Conference) from the 1920s to the 1960s never surfaced. To this day, according to one former player, no one in the NFL or NFLPA knows exactly how many players performed in the NFL. The NFL finally admitted in 2010 that concussions might cause long-term health issues for players and their families, although the NFL and the NFLPA won't confirm that concussions from football injuries cause brain trauma.
“It's all about money. (Giants quarterback) Eli Manning got $100 million,” said Huff.
“We have to take care of them (former players). We made the game what it is. It is war without guns. But I played high school, college football, was the rookie of the year and at the end it didn't make a difference.”
Huff's world, violent as it was on the football field, was much simpler. He dealt with Wellington Mara on his contract. There were no agents. Agents have not helped according to Huff. They fall into the money now category.
The owners and players will face off in a Minneapolis courtroom in April. It seems NFL owners and players have spent the better part of a half of a century in court. This squabble will ultimately be settled at the negotiating table after the court case and a possible National Labor Relations Board hearing. But don't look for Huff and his peers to be sitting at the peace table and signing onto an accord after a ceasefire has been declared.
Huff doesn't have a seat at the table, which is probably why he would like to suit up one more time in the “Violent World of Sam Huff.”
“If anyone is overpaid, it's Brees,” said Huff. “Why did he open his mouth?”
Huff said that if Brees went against his Giants teams of the 1950s and 1960s, the only thing Brees would say is “did someone get the license plate of that truck?”
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 bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle