Ditka says NFL, union need to do more for ex-players

Updated: February 1, 2007, 8:58 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Jerry Kramer believes the NFL is running away from its retired players who are in need of financial assistance. Now, the former Packers lineman, along with Mike Ditka and others, are doing what they can to help NFL greats who need it.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday in Miami, Kramer announced the official start of the first Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund auction. The event, Kramer said, would help Hall of Fame players who have fallen on their luck and are not covered by the NFL Player Association's and NFL's pensions.

The Gridiron Greats will sponsor the auctioning of NFL memorabilia to try to raise $500,000 for the creation of a trust fund. Ditka, the former Bears coach and current ESPN analyst, also has been sponsoring a golf tournament for the past five years, with half the proceeds assisting players in need.

"This is really important," Ditka said. "We're not trying to bust anybody or embarrass anybody. These guys really gave their all and didn't get a whole lot back for it. These guys are proud. They don't want to beg or ask. But they need the help and the money is there."

Said former Bills lineman Joe DeLamielleure, who also appeared at the news conference: "Gene Upshaw and Paul Tagliabue are responsible for this. They've been in power for 20 years and have done nothing.

"If we get this money and don't distribute it, we're as guilty as the other people who have been screwing them [older players] for years."

Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA, told ESPN's Rachel Nichols that $1.2 million has been distributed in the last year to "players in need." The money has gone to 147 former players; only 12 players were denied a grant, according to Upshaw.

"For anyone to say that Gene Upshaw and the NFLPA does not care about retired players is not responsible," Upshaw told Nichols. "We know and understand the problems we have in this area," he said.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said commissioner Roger Goodell would talk about the issue Friday.

"NFL owners are putting $126 million per year into pension and post-career disability benefits for retired players and their families," Aiello told ESPN. "We are paying out $60 million per year to retired players, including $20 million a year for disability payments to retired players. Every CBA negotiation has included improvements in benefits for retired players, something that is very unusual in labor relations."

Ditka said Thursday he had dinner with the owner of a non-NFL franchise and the owner pledged $100,000 to Gridiron Greats fund.

"We can eliminate the problem ... we can take care of it," said Ditka, adding that pros who played before 1959 can also benefit from the league's and union's pension funds.

"The NFLPA benefit program for them is terrible," Ditka said. "There's a perception that everyone who plays the game does well; I have, I've been blessed. Don't mix perception with reality.

"It's 2007. It's time to right a wrong that's existed too long."