Saturday, September 08, 2007

Organized labor claims more casualties: NFL veterans

Mens Journal offers a poignant article on the tragic mistreatment of injured NFL veterans by the league and the players' union (hat tip: Tax Man blog).

...the men on the field who generate those billions are real; they bleed; they break; their brains cloud. The nature of their injuries, particularly the mind-dimming concussion, has dominated the off-the-field news of late. Post-mortem exams of Andre Waters (suicide at 44), Terry Long (suicide at 45), Justin Strzelczyk (car crash at 36), Mike Webster (heart attack at 50) -- showed staggering brain damage in men so young and affirmed that football is no longer a contact sport but real-life Mortal Kombat in cleats. Stunningly no one in the sport has stepped up to address the scope and depth of the injuries -- not the teams, not the owners, and certainly not the one organization charged with looking after the athletes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). In a game expected to take in $7 billion this year and that exceeds all others in causing bodily harm, fewer than 3 percent of the men who played in the league succeed in getting disability benefits. Worse, the players union turns away ailing vets despite a pension fund with $1 billion in assets...

..."It's criminal," says Ditka at an upstairs table in his huge, clamorous steakhouse in Chicago. "There's so much money in this goddamn game, and no one gives a shit about these guys. Bill Forrester's attached to a feeding tube, Joe Perry has to choose between eating and pain pills, and here's this Upshaw, with his $6.7 million salary, saying there's no dough left to help them out. That's greed talking, and nothing else."

He is speaking, or more like it, shouting about Gene Upshaw, the long-serving chief of the players union, who's become the white-hot focus of some veterans' rage. "The NFL is the worst-represented league, on the players' side, in pro sports," said Joe Montana in a 2006 newspaper survey of Hall of Famers. DeLamielleure, the anchor of the Buffalo Bills line that blocked for O.J. Simpson, turns red as a fire ant when asked about Upshaw. "I won't stop until that bastard's gone or in jail. He's a disgrace to every player, past and current..."

Upshaw -- one of the highest-paid officials in the history of organized labor -- refused to be interviewed for the article and "happened to be" out of the country when Congress held a hearing on the union's treatment of injured vets in June.

The billion-dollar question, of course, is why. Why have the pleas of DeMarco, Mosley, et al., been met with indifference, even hostility? Why has ex-Pro Bowler Conrad Dobler been denied five times for disability, despite 13 operations on one leg? Why is Willie Wood, the gallant Green Bay safety, unable to pay for his assisted living facility? Why is Mercury Morris, the fleet tailback who fractured his neck as a Miami Dolphin, still fighting in appeals court to overturn the pension board's decision, 20 years later? Why did Johnny Unitas, the onetime face of the NFL, die embittered by the league's callous treatment of his teammates?

[The NFL's] existing bureaucracy -- a six-man board of trustees, made up of three reps from owners and players apiece -- a screening committee was added with the power to approve or reject claims. Confusing new rules and categories were added, and retired players were reduced to one kind of claim, football degenerative injuries. But unless they could prove that their health woes were caused by football, they stood no chance of ever collecting the $9,000 a month. And most of those who won claims had to win them over and over again, as the board sent them to doctors every second year to recertify their debilities. "That's the trick they pulled on me," says Mosley. "They shopped and shopped till they found a quack doctor who would cross me off the list..."

[The greatest] outrage, by far, is what [Upshaw] hasn't accomplished. He failed to win guaranteed contracts in bargaining, failed to get his players long-term health insurance, and failed to get as big a percentage of total revenues as union chiefs have in other sports. Baseball, which took in $5.1 billion in revenues in 2006, provides 10-year veterans a maximum annual pension of $180,000; football, by contrast, which grossed $6 billion last season, pays 10-year vets only about $50,000 a year. On a yearly basis, according to figures provided by union critic Parrish, baseball pensions average three times the NFLPA's (roughly $36,000 to a sub-poverty $12,000). Some of the greatest men who ever played the game receive pensions of a couple of hundred dollars a month.

Many decades ago, unions played a vital role in assuring reasonable treatment for workers.

Those days are long since past.

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