Latest Step in Dispute Concerning Retirees and Pensions
NFL Retirement Benefits: Issues and Concerns
Statement of the Issues:
Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Fame member Earl Campbell was a premier running back in the 1970s. In an ear when 300-lb linemen and sub 4.5-second forty yard times for skill position players where both a novelty rather than the norm, Campbell, at 5-11, 240+ lbs with 4.6 speed, was the most formidable big back in the game. Today, at an age where many of his fans are either at the peaks of their professional careers or enjoying very active retirements, Earl Campbell must rely on his wheelchair because he cannot walk more than a few feet without assistance.
At home back in Tyler, Texas, the 52-year-old looks like a man twenty or thirty years older than he is. Still, he remains thankful for his NFL career. Others retired NFL players from the same era faired even worse after their careers, whether they played just a few years before career-ending injuries like the Chicago Bears’ Roger Stillwell, or Hall-of-Fame
Oakland Raiders center, Jim Otto, who retired after 14-year. Stillwell, disabled since his career ended in a single play in 1979, after four seasons in the NFL.
Otto and Stillwell were both profiled in the 1985 documentary Disposable Heroes detailing Otto’s impending knee replacement surgery and Stillwell’s constant pain, physical disability, and financial destitution. Otto, whose right leg was amputated this past August detailed his forty surgeries other previous surgeries in his 2000 book, the Pain of Glory.
Stillwell died at the age of 54 in 2006. That same year, retired Philadelphia Eagles star safety, Andre Waters took his own life with a hand gun, reportedly from depression linked to the early onset of Alzheimer’s. According to one neuropathologist who examined him,
Waters’ brain looked more like that of a man in his mid 80s, which he attributed to the repeated violent impacts sustained by the All-Pro safety in 11 years in the NFL.1
Waters was 44.
By all accounts, it was the players of Otto’s era who laid the groundwork making today’s NFL the $6 billion business that it is today. Long before the $1 million average player’s contract of today, players like Otto, Stillwell, and Campbell played under conditions where players’ health was of less consideration than their performance. Running backs like Campbell were routinely injected with painkillers without much concern for the dangers of incurring even worse injuries or for the long-term effects on their bodies. Even with modern emphasis on conditioning, injury prevention, equipment design, and rule changes intended to make the game safer on the field, the average NFL career is 3-4 years.
The NFL retirement system is administrated by the NFL Players Association
NFLPA), headed by Hall of Fame Oakland Raider lineman, Gene Upshaw. It provides pensions between $200 and $500 for most retired players from the 50s through most of the 80s, and only modest disability benefits for approximately 3% of its almost 10,000 members, and rejects the claims from the vast majority of those who apply for them.2
Meanwhile, by comparison, retired major league baseball players enjoy comprehensive retirement benefits including full medical coverage for life for every player who appeared even once on an MLB active roster.3
Likewise, the NBA already agreed, in 1999, to a retiree pension that is “the maximum allowed by law.”
Currently, negotiations are underway to incorporate subsequent changes to the law, that as of 2001, allow additional benefit increases of 60% over those currently provided.4
Long-Term Medical Problems, Cognitive Impairment and Football-Related Dementia:
Cerebral concussions that today mean the automatic removal of players from the game and trigger strict protocols for assessing their neurological condition before being cleared to play in the next game were not even considered injuries until relatively recently.
In his 1997 book, the Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL, retired Atlanta Falcon defensive end Tim Green, (1986-1993) recounts how until the late 90s, concussions were simply called “getting your bell rung” or “getting dinged” and that it was not that uncommon for a player to suffer multiple concussions in a single game or dozens throughout a typical
Since then, neurological researchers have concluded that the damage from repeated blows to the head of the kind sustained in professional football is identical to the types of cerebral damage known to afflict former boxers. In the 90s, several successful players like New York Jets receiver Al Toon and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge retired while still in their prime, because of postconcussive brain syndrome and their fears of long- term disability. Both already experienced symptoms like chronic migraine headaches and the beginnings of memory and vestibular problems after multiple concussions on the field. The data related to postconcussion syndrome also demonstrated that with each concussion, the NBRPA, 2005
Green, 1997 athlete becomes more easily susceptible to subsequent concussions and that their damage is cumulative, even after full recovery.
After examining the brain of Andre Waters following his suicide last year, neurologist Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh said that Waters’ repeated concussions on the field were “… The significant contributory factor… no matter how you look at it, distort it, bend it. it’s the significant forensic factor given the global scenario,” referring to the violence taken for granted in professional football. Dr. Bennet continued by describing the uncontroverted link between early Alzheimer’s and clinical depression, suggesting that “Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated” within the next decade or so, well before the age of 60, had he lived.6
Recently, Hall of Fame Baltimore Colt tight end John Makey and San Diego Charger
Ralph Wenzel with whom Mackey played on the same offensive line before his retirement, appeared together on national television in an interview hoping to call attention to their plight. Both Mackey and Wenzel, 65, and 64, respectively, already suffer from advancing Alzheimer’s requiring full-time assistance and medical care that far exceed their pension income. (____7). Despite playing together on the same line, neither remembers the other and they forget each other’s names, even after being reintroduced only minutes earlier.
In a three-page letter she wrote appealing to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue last year, Mackey’s wife Sylvia referred to her husband’s Alzheimer’s as “a slow, deteriorating, ugly, caregiver-killing, degenerative, brain-destroying tragic horror”7. Largely
Schwarz, 2007 due to her efforts and those of Dr. Eleanor Perfetto, wife of Ralph Wenzel, the NFL recently announced the formation of the “88 Plan,” a reference to Mackey’s old uniform number. In connection with its inception, 35 retired players have been approved for financial assistance for up to $50,000 per year in medical costs or up to $88,000 if they are institutionalized.
However, many consider this measure inadequate, since the medical costs alone often greatly exceed those award amounts. Likewise, critics of the NFL and the NFLPA have repeatedly tried to call attention to the difficulty encountered by players applying for help with medical conditions that resulted from their playing days. In particular, accusations of doctor shopping” have suggested that the NFLPA systematically seeks out additional medical diagnoses until they find one that refutes any professional evaluation justifying medical benefits.8
Hall of Fame player and Super Bowl winning coach Mike Ditka is so incensed over the union’s treatment of retirees that he has absolutely refused to return to the Canton, Ohio
Hall of Fame in protest. According to Ditka, “The system is flawed and when they fix the system I’ll go back”9 Ditka is also annoyed at the fact that the NFL does not even compensate its former players for appearing at their Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, which he considers indicative of their disregard for retirees, in general.
Even current NFLPA president Gene Upshaw was shocked at some of the names of his contemporaries on applications for assistance with dementia-related medical problems, saying, “I played with or against quite a few of these guys… I knew one or two were having problems, but I never knew the extent.”10
Notwithstanding the Carpenter, 2007
AP, 2007 need for more assistance, preliminary efforts like Plan 88 have been commended in medical circles. The New York Alzheimer’s Association recently honored Sylvia
Mackey and Dr. Eleanor Perfetto for their efforts. According to its president and CEO
Lou-Ellen Barkan, “This is the first union and industry program of its kind and it’s the first that recognizes the burden the disease puts on families…Something like this allows them to hire help… It allows them to keep jobs without the burden of also being a full- time caregiver.”11
Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress responded to concerns of retired NFL players, and both Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Judiciary Committee commissioned a study to address the issues. Specifically, because of the implications with respect to the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974, Congress is understandably most concerned with the numerous accusations related to obstacles imposed by the NFL to disqualify members applying for medical benefits associated with long-term effects of their playing days and current symptoms of degenerative diseases.12
Furthermore, ERISA issues aside, according to Linda Sanchez (D-California), “It concerns me when those who work hazardous jobs don’t get the care they deserve, whether a coal miner, tire factory worker or football player… ” referring to the questionnaire distributed to the NFLPA requesting medical data pertaining to their retirees, she said, “I look forward to timely responses to our questions so we can determine what steps might be necessary that those who made football great aren’t neglected.”13
Professional football is, by all accounts, a violent sport whose participants frequently suffer significant physical injuries on the playing field. Because of the nature, frequency, and intensity of the collisions inherent to the game, especially at the professional level, the effects of football injuries often persist long after retirement. Most insidious are the cumulative effects of repeated cerebral concussions, only recently identified as a specific injury when they occur, especially with regard to the delayed after-effects of some of those collisions.
The recent deaths of several high-profile retired former NFL stars at relatively early ages and the disclosure of the debilitating physical condition of others have increased attention to the need to improve retirement benefits. In particular, the documented causal connection between postconcussion syndrome, early-onset dementia afflicting several 1960 and 1970-era NFL stars have inspired changes in medical benefits provided by the NFLPA, but overall, retirement benefits available to NFL retirees still pales in comparison to those available to retirees in other professional sports like NBA basketball and major league baseball players.
In 2007, the U.S. Congress addressed the situation and recently issued questionnaires requiring relevant information from the NFL and the NFLPA to ascertain the truth pertaining to various accusations of violation of federal retirement benefit law, and resolution of some type seems to be on the horizon. Ultimately, what NFL retirees are asking for is simply a system of retirement benefits that appropriately accounts for the physical abuse entailed by their careers, and the long-term medical consequences that are direct functions of having contributed to making the NFL the success it has become.
Associated Press. 10/24/07 NFL Adds $10 Million to Medical Fund, Latest Step in Dispute Concerning Retirees and Pensions. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, from CBSonline at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/10/24/ap/sportsline/main3404035.shtml?source=search_story
Associated Press. 5/31/07-35 NFL Players Qualify for Dementia-Alzheimer’s Assistance Retrieved, November 3, 2007, from FoxNews Web site, at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,276617,00.html
Carpenter, L. 10/13/07 Congress Presses NFL, Union on Benefits. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, from WashingtonPost.com at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/12/AR2007101202059.html
Conrad, M. (1999) Sportslaw History: The John Mackey case. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, at http://www.sportslawnews.com/archive/history/HT8.html
Green, T. (1996) the Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL.
New York: Warner
Holland, J., J. 10/12/07 House Committee Asks for More Answers on Injured NFL Players. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, at http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=ap-nfl-disability&prov=ap&type=lgns
Kindervader, D. 6/27/2007 Retrieved, November 3, 2007, at http://www.emqb.com/congress-might-get-involved-in-disability-dispute-between-nfl-players-union/
Laird, B. 1/16/07 Yesterday’s NFL Heroes Deserve Better Today: NFL Must Treat All of Its Players With Respect; the Baltimore Examiner. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, at http://nflretiredplayers.blogspot.com/2007/01/nfl-must-treat-all-of-its-players-with.html
McCann, M. 9/18/07 Sports and the Law; No Easy Answers: NFL Retirement System Not as Bad, or Good, as Argued. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, from SportsIlustrated.com at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/michael_mccann/09/18/hearings/index.html
NBA Players’ Pension Plan; (2005) Legend of Basketball – National Basketball Retired Players Association. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, from https://www.nbrpa.com/nbrpa/03_14_05.aspx
Schwarz, a. 3/14/07 Football: Wives also Suffer as Dementia Sets in. International Herald Tribune. Retrieved, November 3, 2007, at http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/03/14/sports/DEMENTIA.php
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