WASHINGTON -- NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw offered no apologies yesterday for his combative comments about retired players who have criticized him. But, in a rare interview on the subject, Upshaw said he was committed to resolving some of their issues with the league's disability benefits system.
Upshaw said he has been talking privately with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about streamlining a disability system that many former players believe is broken. He said the system is basically sound but could be improved by an amendment called a "side letter" without reopening the collective bargaining agreement with the league. "I'm not saying that more players would automatically qualify for disability because you still have to meet certain standards. But what we need to do is to sort of look at how we can speed up the process," Upshaw said.
Upshaw's remarks came in the union's downtown offices during what aides said was one of his first broad interviews since relations with a faction of retired players soured several months ago. The Hall of Fame former Oakland Raiders guard said he believes he still has the backing of most of the 2,700 to 3,000 retired players who are union members.
He said he had no regrets about the harsh words he has exchanged lately with former players who believe he hasn't done enough for a pension system less generous than Major League Baseball's and a disability system that some retirees say is stacked against them. The retirees' complaints became big news when such prominent figures as former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and the widow of former Baltimore Colts quarterback John Unitas joined less well-known players in accusing union and league officials of abandoning needy players who had once helped the NFL flourish.
"I don't have a specific message for any individual dissident whatsoever," said Upshaw, the union's executive director since 1983. "I've been involved in this union since I became a player in this league in 1967, and I've been fighting for players' rights ever since I've been here, and that includes the retired players. And that part has been misunderstood."
Upshaw was quoted two months ago in the Philadelphia Daily News saying, "A guy like [Hall of Fame guard Joe] DeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."
Upshaw said yesterday that he remained accessible even to his critics. "If they want to meet with me, they know how to find me," Upshaw said.
Bruce Laird, the president of the Baltimore Colts' alumni chapter of retired players, said yesterday: "We have sent him numerous e-mails where he's never responded. Quite frankly, why would I want to talk to someone legally obligated to act on behalf of the active players only?"
Laird and other former players say Upshaw has made statements suggesting he has no interest in representing them.
Upshaw said he's doing as much as he can. He said that the players association is legally able to represent only people in the bargaining unit, which are the active players.
But Upshaw said he has nevertheless managed to win victories for retired players by negotiating for them a percentage of the money that would otherwise go to active players' salaries and benefits. From April 2006 to March 2007, active players gave up about $96.5 million to fund former players' retirement benefits, according to the NFLPA.
The retirement plan's fund contains $1.1 billion and covers retirement, disability and death benefits. Retired players can receive $110,000 per year if they are declared "totally and permanently disabled" within 15 years of leaving football. There are also various levels of partial disability.
Upshaw recently 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 retired players' benefits and other matters. "The reason I need Lanny and the Orrick firm is a lot has been written and a lot has been inaccurate and there hasn't been a way to deal with the inconsistency that's there. I've been misquoted and quoted out of context so many times that it just gets to be almost comical," Upshaw said.
Upshaw was interviewed weeks after he declined an invitation by a House Judiciary subcommittee to testify about retirement benefits because he had committed to a European vacation. "It was almost totally impossible to testify before Congress because I found out six days before the first hearing date that they even wanted me to testify. And they gave me the choice of two dates," Upshaw said.
James Dau, a spokesman for subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat, said yesterday that the panel "began communicating with Mr. Upshaw's representatives at least three weeks before the actual hearing date. We proposed two dates and received no counterproposal. It became clear to us that Mr. Upshaw had no interest in participating in the hearing, so we planned accordingly."
At the hearing, California Democrat Maxine Waters said she was alarmed to learn that few more than 300 players currently qualify for disability benefits out of up to 10,000 who have played in the league. Upshaw said yesterday that the 10,000 figure was misleading because it included thousands of active players and those drawing pensions precluding them from disability pay.
Upshaw said disability applications are often delayed by an initial claims committee consisting of an owners appointee and a union appointee. If one person disagrees, it's a deadlock, and the claim is denied.
"The owner advisers have always been a delaying tactic to slow the process down," Upshaw said.
Cy Smith, a partner at the Baltimore law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, agreed with Upshaw yesterday but said there were many other problems. Smith, who has represented NFL players in the process, said there was no requirement that claims committee members be medically trained. He also said stringent claims-processing deadlines should be adopted to speed the process up.