Commentary

Tide turning for retired players? Maybe

Originally Published: June 12, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

How does one characterize last week's $26 million settlement by the NFLPA, in a lawsuit won in a San Francisco courtroom by retired players six months ago?

A good start.

The eight-figure down payment was first reported by ESPN's Chris Mortensen. It might take a lot more than money, however, to finally move beyond the discord and seeming distrust that exists between past players and their current counterparts.

Like perhaps a revamped mindset, as well.

The relationship between current and retired players "was fractured in every way," said Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson after briefly addressing league owners at last month's spring meetings in Fort. Lauderdale, Fla. "There are some [retired] players who feel like they have fallen completely off the radar screen."

The recession clearly has affected the NFL. The league has reduced the work force in its Manhattan offices; individual franchises have furloughed support staffers; commissioner Roger Goodell has opted for a reduced salary; advertising revenues could suffer because of the recession; and the NFL has scuttled a pension plan regarded by some as one of the best in this country, if not the world. Given such an economically challenging time, it might seem to some that retired players have their hands out.

But the reality is that many of those hands are wracked by arthritis, that some former players require hip or knee replacement surgery to address issues precipitated by their playing careers, and that a number suffer from neurological problems that many doctors have traced back to their one-time profession. Yet some former players are subsisting on pensions of only $200 per month, and such an inequity needs to be addressed.

The 88 Plan -- named after former Baltimore standout tight end John Mackey, and funded by the league and NFLPA to minister to the care of former players who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's -- is a terrific initiative. But there must be more aggressive plans like it to address the host of maladies that affect men who inevitably pay for their celebrity with their bodies.

Every year, it seems there are horror stories about a former NFL player who is destitute, who had to take an early pension to make ends meet, or whose debilitations from playing football are poorly treated or not treated at all.

Critics of Barack Obama charge that the president is trying to "spread the wealth." Ideologies aside, it might be time to better share the bounty from a league that generates about $7 billion per year. Indeed, it might be time to write the final chapter to those gut-wrenching, tragic, down-on-their-luck stories about former NFL players.

Current players, though, will have to develop a much better sense of conscience.

Thankfully for retired players, they represent more than just a bothersome blip to new NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. On the job only a few months, Smith already has spoken publicly about a much-needed reconciliation between the two sides. Unlike his predecessor, Smith has reached out to the league's former rank-and-file members and declared himself "the executive director for all players." His constituency, Smith has suggested, extends well beyond those players currently on NFL rosters.

The late Gene Upshaw was an undeniable boon to active players, as his actions and his stance at the negotiating table were at least partly responsible for the exponential increase in salaries during his tenure. But while the compensation for current players has increased dramatically in recent years, some of the men upon whose pre-eminence the NFL was built are in a financial spiral. And Upshaw either ignored their plight or elected to do little about it.

Upshaw once declared, in fact, that he served only active players, not the ones who came before them. Almost from the moment he publicly uttered that infamous statement in an interview with The Charlotte Observer, Upshaw probably regretted making it, because he was basically a good man and an effective labor leader who promulgated considerable advancement. But Upshaw was also a passionate man whose hair-trigger responses frequently allowed his emotions to override his common sense, and his thoughts to trump his mouth. Upshaw shot from the lip and counted on his minions to clean up the residual verbal shrapnel.

An attorney by trade, there is nothing knee-jerk about Smith, and his public words are generally well-measured and effectively articulated. To date, at least, there has been a notable absence of the kind of volatile rhetoric and latent acrimony between the sides that marked the past few years.

So there might actually be some hope that retired players will better benefit from the league's windfall revenues.

With the emphasis on might.

Even Carson, who is optimistic that the strife can be resolved, remains somewhat skeptical. And in his audience with NFL owners last month, the former New York Giants star conceded that there remain some hard feelings.

"I hear his message, and I appreciate that," Carson said of Smith's stated sentiments, "but I think the damage is done. There are guys who [retain] a bitter taste."

Offering a potential sweetener of sorts could be the NFLPA's Smith and the group Fourth and Goal. Founded by former NFL defensive back Bruce Laird, who played a dozen seasons with the Baltimore Colts (1972-81) and the San Diego Chargers (1982-83), Fourth and Goal is a nonprofit group dedicated to advocacy for former players.

And maybe, most importantly, to advancing the cause with one voice.

In the past, part of the problem for retired players is that there may have been too many advocacy groups. NFL Alumni Inc., Fourth and Goal, and the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund (the group founded by Mike Ditka) all took turns railing against what they considered the injustices of the system. The result of such fragmentation was too often a kind of dissonance, a message delivered by too many words, with a glut of advocacy groups all fighting for the same cause.

Fourth and Goal recently merged with NFL Alumni Inc. to form the NFL Alumni Association.

Even though strides have been made, there is still a fairly substantial group of independent retired players who remain distrustful of the NFLPA and the league, and are wary of their motives. That said, progress can be seen in the NFLPA settlement, the presence of Smith as union leader, and the unity demonstrated by some former players. And, it seems, in the desire of most league owners to address the issue.

"I think those folks get it," Carson said after last month's meeting with NFL owners.

Now the current players need to get it, as well -- with increased money, benefits and respect for their successors.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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