Commentary

Hearing about retired players will produce bluster aplenty

Originally Published: September 17, 2007
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, politicians in the nation's capital love to hear their names mentioned on ESPN and see their photos on their hometown sports pages. When they talk about sports, they're able to remind their constituents of their importance. They're able to look like regular guys or gals. And sports talk is a lot easier than making sense of health care reform or the national debt.

It's no surprise, then, that the politicians on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will spend a couple of hours on Tuesday posturing and declaiming on the plight of retired NFL players, and what the league and the players union are doing for them.

With testimony expected from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, union leader Gene Upshaw, and Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers, the hearing room will be filled with accusations and explanations.

Ditka and other ex-players claim that NFL owners and the players union have failed to provide properly for aging athletes who face debilitating injuries. The league and the union reply that they have established the most generous disability system anywhere, and that it is improving every year.

Goodell and Upshaw will tell the senators that the NFL pension/disability fund has grown from $88 million in 1982 to $1.1 billion today. They will show that the 1,800 players in the NFL this season will contribute an average of $82,000 each to health, pension and disability benefits for former players, a total of $147.5 million. And they will focus on their assertion that many former players are collecting disabilities and pensions in annual amounts that are more than they made as players.

The debate will be fierce. Despite the impressive numbers presented by the league and the union, many old players feel wronged and aren't hesitant to say so. They're quick to use words like "fraud" and "crime" and "corruption." At a hearing in June before a House subcommittee, former Vikings player Brent Boyd, who suffered a series of concussions, compared the NFL to the tobacco industry, saying, "They lie about the NFL and concussions the same way the tobacco companies lied about tobacco and cancer."

Ditka and one of his former players, Dave Duerson, will be on opposite sides of the issue when they testify on Tuesday. Ditka has repeatedly claimed that the NFL system, which was developed in collective bargaining between NFL owners and the union, is "broken and needs to be fixed."

Duerson, who is a member of the board that decides disputed disability cases, replies that Ditka "has always been anti-union." Recalling his days playing for Ditka and the Bears, Duerson says, "He was very disrespectful of injured players when he was coaching, and now he's trying to take the side of a few guys who made bad decisions about their lives and their money."

Garrett Webster, the son of Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster, will tell the senators the tragic story of his father, who faced dementia and homelessness after an NFL career that put him in the Hall of Fame. The Webster family was able to collect disability benefits only after protracted litigation following Mike Webster's death.

Although the hearing will define the issues, it will not resolve any of them. It's what they call an "oversight" hearing in the U.S. Congress. That means the senators are looking at the situation but have no intention of passing any legislation or taking any specific remedial action.

In other words, the senators won't determine the success of the hearing until they watch "SportsCenter" and check the sports sections at home.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.