NFL showing cold heart as retirees issue heats up

The Baltimore Sun

The NFL wants you to pay attention to a lot of things - its regular season and playoffs, the free agency soap opera and every aspect of the draft, to name a few.

But there are also things the league would prefer you not pay attention to, and high on that list right now is a swelling chorus of dismay being voiced by some retired players.

They're unhappy with many aspects of their treatment by both the league and the NFL Players Association, citing such issues as a relatively poor pension plan and inadequate health care for needy retired players whose ailments trace to their playing days.

I became aware of their anger earlier this year when I spent several months working on a book involving NFL players from the 1950s. As I went around the country speaking to them - members of the league's greatest generation, including some Hall of Famers - I was struck by the sameness of the experience.

After knocking on a front door, I inevitably watched a bent, limping figure approach from the inside and swing the door open. Then, just as inevitably, the conversation turned to the plight of some of their worst-off comrades and the indifference they perceived from the league and union.

Taking on the NFL, which generates more than $6 billion a year in revenues, is a daunting proposition and not something they want to do, but they're getting louder and louder - and they're just as upset with the union as they are with the league.

Dick Butkus, perhaps the greatest linebacker ever, refuses to attend the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony because of what he believes is the cold shoulder being given to former players. Former player and coach Mike Ditka also refuses to attend and raises money for players down on their luck. He used his ESPN pulpit to call attention to the situation during the most recent Super Bowl.

Former Colts safety Bruce Laird has also been a leading voice, organizing a local alumni chapter and overseeing an Internet blog that has provided a forum for former players to air gripes.

Now, as The Sun's Ken Murray reported earlier this week, the union is threatening to shut down alumni chapters that speak out negatively - a cheap, misguided stunt. Instead of trying to squelch dissent, the union should be more concerned about seeing that some of the players who helped make the NFL so popular and profitable get better care.

True, the union doesn't represent former players - a federal law stipulates that - and a fair share of these retired players hurt their own causes by taking early pensions years ago, severely limiting their payouts today. They also, in some cases, continued to play when it was obvious they should have retired. You can't blame the league for that.

In this complicated case, the union has legitimate defenses behind which it can retreat, as does the league, which can't be expected to have to oversee players from a half-century ago.

But in the end, this is about sheer human decency.

Legendary players such as Green Bay's Willie Wood, who is now broken down and destitute, shouldn't be left to live out their days so sadly. Players such as the late John Unitas, whose disabilities obviously dated to his playing career, shouldn't be hassled so much when they file disability claims.

Many of the players I interviewed earlier this year said they were fine and didn't need help, but they named dozens in need. There are more than anyone realizes, the players said.

It's shameful this situation exists, given the staggering amount of money pumping through pro football's veins. Surely a small portion of the league's colossal TV riches could be set aside for hurting football pioneers - whose historic exploits the NFL readily sells, by the way.

No doubt, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's other higher-ups just wish the whole issue would go away. That seems less likely as more former players raise their voices.

It might ultimately prove to have been an effective tactic. The NFL loathes image nightmares, and if enough former players continue to speak out, this could become one. The league usually acts quickly to make such nightmares go away; look at its new off-field policy, mandated after a series of embarrassing incidents.

Goodell and the owners could feel compelled to get together and reach out to hurting retired players - not out of compassion as much as image concerns, but who cares? The most important thing would be to help the players who need it and deserve it.

Keep shouting, guys, keep shouting.

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