Retired NFL Players May Reap Rewards When Football Lockout is Settled

By Paul Hirsch

The plight of retired NFL players is well documented. They suffer from brain and orthopedic conditions at near epidemic rates. Their pensions and disability coverage are inadequate and the league and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) have done little to help.

With the end of the NFL lockout on the horizon, that may change. It seems that retired NFL players could be in for a significant cut of any settlement, which would provide relief for many players who can no longer take care of themselves.

Current NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith seems much more amenable to helping retired NFL players than his predecessor Gene Upshaw did. While Upshaw made it clear that he represented current players only, Smith has been more sympathetic to players who built the foundation for what current players enjoy today.

“We have a moral obligation to the retired players; we have a fiduciary obligation to the retired players,” he said. “That obligation has to be both in words and deeds. If you fail in either one, you fail.”

NFL revenue is estimated at about $9 billion annually. In recent years the players and owners have split that about evenly, something that may change slightly when the new agreement is announced. One of the hot button issues remaining is said to be the plight of retired NFL players.

The best current thinking is what is being called the Three Percent Solution, as advocated by NFL alum Jeff Nixon. It calls for each side to contributed 1.5 percent of its revenues into a pot for retired NFL players. The NFLPA and NFL would each contribute 1.5 percent or $139.5 million to a pension plan or annuity plan.  

It is important to note that these proposed increases would be in addition to what is currently being contributed to the pension plan. 

“One of the most important things that active players need to remember is this: you are only one play away from being retired as an NFL player,” Nixon said. “Careers are short and the huge amount of money you are making now will vanish when the cheering stops.”

That should be incentive enough for the NFLPA to decide to help its retired brethren, but what about the owners? Why should they give away nearly $140 million to help players who are no longer bringing fans into their stadiums?

“Retired players are important to us. They helped us build the game,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at a Charlotte Regional Partnership luncheon honoring Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

Goodell, however, just works for the owners, and so far no owner has been willing to speak for the record about how much, or how little, retired NFL players mean to them. As a result, a class action suit has been filed to ensure that those who built the league are not left out of any settlement.

Early in the process to hammer out this current agreement retired NFL players were represented at the bargaining table. As talks have heated up recently, retired player representation has been missing.

This hasn’t set well with them, and lawyers for the group have sent letters to U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur J. Boylan, lobbied NFL Commissioner Goodell and held intense media briefings to make their feelings known.  The complaint said the players’ decision to decertify their union makes it an antitrust violation for the owners and current players to negotiate for retired NFL players.

It also alleges that the NFL had said it would tap revenue streams both from within and outside the salary cap to help retired players, but union representatives, including Smith, want all the money delegated for the cap to be given to current players.

“Through the settlement they are forging, the Brady plaintiffs, the NFLPA and the NFL defendants are conspiring to set retiree benefits and pension levels at artificially low levels,” the complaint alleged.

Everyone gives lip service to the idea that it is a shame that Willie Wood can’t stand up, that Jim Otto can barely walk, and that John Mackey died recently from dementia possibly related to the repeated hits to the head he received while playing on Sundays.

The settlement that may be announced next week is basically put up or shut up time as far as retired NFL players are concerned. It will be interesting to see the level of compassion the NFL and the NFLPA show for those who made the game the American institution it is today.

Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.

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