NFL, union unveil plan for needy retirees

Sun reporter

For the third time in the past 13 months, the NFL and the NFL Players Association this week announced new initiatives designed to relieve financial strain on needy retired players.

One day after league commissioner Roger Goodell and union executive director Gene Upshaw met with 11 former players, the NFLPA unveiled a $7 million fund that will offer free surgery for joint replacement to uninsured retired players.It was part of a four-point plan that also will attempt to simplify and expedite the application process for disability benefits, a major complaint of aging retirees.

While the financial commitment promised to lessen the burden on retirees, it did not entirely satisfy the rank and file who feel they have been treated unfairly by the union.

"I think that's a very good start," Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson said. "But ultimately it's going to come around to the pension issue for the players. Even if a guy isn't dealing with the problems of disability, when you look at the pension of retired NFL players, it still lags behind other sports that don't have the same brutality as professional football."

The $7 million comes from unspecified contributions from each of the five factions in a program Goodell introduced in May to coordinate medical support services for former players. Those factions include the NFL, the NFLPA, the NFL Retired Players Association, NFL Alumni, NFL Charities and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In a statement issued by Fourth & Goal, a national advocacy group in Baltimore for retired players, organization president Bruce Laird, a former Colt, questioned how far the $7 million would stretch in medical payments.

"I'll defer comment on the details of any proposed plan until I've had a chance to read the document," the statement said. "I'm surprised, though, that the NFL and the NFLPA have found $7 million for the more than 9,100 retired players who built both the league and the union.

"Seven million dollars -- an amount equal to what the union's executive director reportedly earned last year -- works out to about $760 per retired player."

Dr. Andrew Tucker, Ravens team physician and chief of sports medicine for Union Memorial Hospital, estimated that joint replacement surgeries may cost between $20,000 and $30,000.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail that the $7 million represents an "initial pooling of funds into a central fund. The fund will be built from there."

The launching of the fund nevertheless appeared to show Upshaw's willingness to work toward alleviating the problems of retired players. In a statement issued by the NFLPA, Upshaw acknowledged the need to expedite the process for disability benefits, which can sometimes take as much as two years.

"Today's announcement builds on our record of continually improving retired players' benefits for well over a decade," Upshaw said. "Both the NFLPA and NFL recognize that disabled former players need to get the benefits they deserve more quickly, and we've committed to doing just that."

This week, Upshaw retained former President Bill Clinton's special counsel Lanny Davis and his law firm, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, to advise him on legal issues and media coverage related to NFL retirees' benefits and other matters.

When the league and union announced pension increases a year ago, they also started a program to help former players with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. The 88 Plan - named for former Colts tight end John Mackey, who suffers from dementia - will provide up to $88,000 a year for institutional care or up to $50,000 a year for in-home nursing care.

"We all recognize the contributions made by those who played in the NFL," Goodell said in a statement. "I fully share Gene's commitment to those men and their families. These programs will be part of a continuing package of improved medical-related services for retired players."

Former union leader and ex-Baltimore Colts linebacker Stan White was appreciative of the new coverage.

"I think these are areas that needed to be improved, the disability and the red tape to get to disability," White said. "Disability is unfair to former players at this point, the way it's executed. There was no reason [for the union or league owners] to fight it the way it's been fought."

NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis said the union was in discussion about different options for improving the disability process.

"As we continue to explore the area of disability, we'll continue to listen to ways to streamline that area," he said.

Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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