By Carl Prine and Scott Brown, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Friday, March 11, 2011
The NFL and unionized players speak loudly about helping retired athletes who helped build a league worth $9 billion in annual revenue before it broke them.
But dozens of prominent retirees interviewed by the Tribune-Review said they doubt much will be done for them by the 32 franchises and the NFL Players Association as they try to forge a new collective bargaining agreement.
“Every time they do this, both sides invoke our names. But there’s no one at the table talking for us,” said Bob Grant, a former linebacker for the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins in the late 1960s. “We’re not asking for charity. We’re asking only for what we’re due. You used us to make money. You owe us.”
To aid retirees, the union wants owners to pool $32 million annually for a “legacy” fund. The NFL asked the union to split the cost. Currently, benefits paid to retirees come from previous bargaining agreements — revenues that could be going to current players.
But not all retirees are equal. Those who played after the 1993 bargaining agreement get more generous benefits. That’s created different tiers of retirees, leading to complaints that today’s NFL and union proposals remain too skimpy.
Grant proposes NFL teams pay $3 million each annually for 12 years, creating a $1.2 billion fund that could aid an estimated 20,000 living former pros.
Former Buffalo Bills defensive back Jeff Nixon has suggested a $100 million annual NFL contribution for retired athletes — with payouts based on years played after a minimum one year. Those dollars could come by trimming cash from the approximately $600 million annually that unproven rookies drafted in the first round earn in bonuses alone.
“And if something like that doesn’t come out of the negotiations, then it’s fine for retired players to go to Congress or the courts to get it done,” Nixon said.
Restricted by a federally mandated cone of silence during negotiations, NFL and union officials remained mum on what they would do for retirees. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has insisted a new agreement “must include improvements for retired players.”
That didn’t impress ex-athletes, who have called for a future fund to be overseen by an independent group of retirees, not the NFL or current players.
“I’ve been in the sports world, and I’ve been in the business world. There’s one thing I know — you can’t bank a promise,” said Sam Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the New York Giants and native of Morgantown, W.Va. “During these talks they say one thing and then they will do something else.”
Bernie Parrish, former Cleveland Browns cornerback and past players union president, said he knows how to make the union and the league keep their promises: Sue them.
“The only place we’ve ever been effective is in court,” said Parrish, who initiated a successful 2008 class-action lawsuit against the union, forcing a $28 million settlement. “Taxpayers should be applauding us. They’re the ones on the hook for probably a billion dollars in disability bills that could be paid for by professional football.”
One of those players getting federal disability payments is Jimmie Giles, a four-time Pro Bowl tight end who spent 14 years in the NFL, mostly as a beefy blocker on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For nearly seven years, Social Security disability payments have been tied to his football injuries.
He’s suing the union for failing to aid him with degenerative orthopedic ailments he and Social Security say were caused by the NFL. The union has blamed his problems on obesity throughout his adult years — a problem Giles’ Georgia attorney, John Hogan, also said was caused by the teams, which required his client to stay too hefty to play.
Although he has sought to meet with League and union officials to discuss reforms to the way healthcare, pension and disability benefits are handled so that there are fewer lawsuits, Hogan says he was rebuffed and Giles’ lawsuit grinds on in federal court.
“They just kind of ignored all of our proposals,” said Hogan. “It becomes a conspiracy of silence. No one wants to talk about the problems that come later in life, that show up more than 15 years after a player is out of the game, like concussions.”
Former Baltimore Colts strong safety Bruce Laird said he also got the cold shoulder from the union and owners.
“All we’re saying is how come we can’t be part of the solution to the problem and why can’t we have a voice in what’s going on?” he said.
“We’re like the hounds under the medievel lord’s table when all of the food has been eaten and they’re all sitting there fat and happy and then they go ‘What’s left at this table here? Throw these fellas down here the bones that’s left on the table.”