NEW YORK – By the time former NFL players got done telling their stories of pain and poverty to Congress, there was barely a dry eye in the House.
With good reason.
It’s easy to feel sympathy for someone like Curt Marsh, the former Oakland Raider offensive lineman who said playing in the NFL led to 31 surgeries, including the amputation of his right leg eight inches above the ankle.
Marsh has a Super Bowl ring on his finger, a metal plate in his neck and screws holding most everything else together.
Then there’s Brent Boyd, the former Minnesota Viking who has struggled with depression and other mental problems from the battering his brain took while playing in the 1980s. Unlike Marsh, Boyd lost his case for permanent disability benefits.
Boyd is bitter and not afraid to show it. The NFL and its player’s union, he told members of Congress, have been “using their tactics of delay and deny and hope I put a bullet through my head to end their problem.”
Sad cases, indeed. Sad enough for some politicians to suggest there ought to be a law against the way ex-players have been treated.
There won’t be.
Those gathered before the House Judiciary Subcommittee the other day understood that. For them, the hearing was a chance to argue their case in a very public forum, and an equally good chance for our elected officials to show they care.
The sad stories are sure to continue, if only because there are so many. The question then becomes how much can be blamed on the NFL and how much is the fault of the players themselves?
Football is a violent, brutal sport. It’s even more violent and more brutal when played by the biggest and best players.
The retired players should have understood that when they joined the league. They didn’t. Because when you’re 25 you think you’re indestructible, and the future seems a long way away.
That future is now for some 10,000 former players, and it’s more painful than they ever imagined. Just 317 are receiving disability payments, and most of the others believe they should be getting far more in pension pay than they do.
This week’s hearing did help turn up the pressure on the league and the NFL Player’s Association, who decide how much of the $1.1 billion fund for pensions and disability will be paid out and to whom it will be paid. What they haven’t been able to win in courts and arbitration hearings, the former players are trying to win by rallying public support.
The campaign is starting to have an effect. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has set a summit next month to try and work things out between the league, the union and the retirees. And the NFL and NFLPA said last week they will use Social Security standards to define disabilities, which should make it easier to qualify.
Hall of Famer Mike Ditka says it’s a simple matter of right versus wrong. The league, he says, is rich and getting richer, and should take care of those who played a part in making it what it is today.
Union chief Gene Upshaw believes it’s not so simple. He said last month that benefits have increased, but that he was tired of explaining it to Ditka and others.
“I’m not sure he would understand it if I did,” Upshaw said, adding: “Yes, I’m calling him stupid.”
Upshaw’s been doing a lot of name-calling lately. Just last month he reacted angrily to comments about paltry pensions by Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure by saying he would like to “break his . . . damn neck.”
Upshaw knows where his loyalties lie, even though he falls in the same group of retired players the union is so wary of giving money to. He’s employed by current players, who have made it clear they are more concerned with keeping money in the fund for their future than paying it out for those who went ahead of them.
The NFL, though, is more sensitive to public opinion and would rather part with a few million dollars than be accused of not caring about its players. Since the league and the union administer the plan jointly, they must find some middle ground.
The retired players, too, must share in taking responsibility.
While others their age went to work in offices and factories and began planning their lives, they chose to play football for a living.
The money’s good while it lasts, but then it’s suddenly gone. And many never bothered to learn other skills or get a degree that might mean something in the job market.
Some end up with broken bodies; others just end up broke.
In the end, though, they all have one thing in common, something that should frame the debate about what they’re due.
No one ever forced them to play the game.
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