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American People Deserve Answer to NFL’s Billion Dollar Healthcare Question


There is a major question that the “American People” should be asking in the ongoing labor dispute between National Football League owners and the National Football League Players Association as the two sides head to a March 4th lockout. Are the players association’s negotiators asking for a change in post career health benefits or are the reps asking for status quo? Status quo means that qualified former pros get health care for just five years following their last game. That is important for the “American People” to know because the “American People” are picking up the cost of taking care of broken down former pros that cannot get health insurance and instead are living on social security disability and Medicare.

The cost to the American taxpayer? Higher than a billion dollars.

Working conditions in the National Football League, whether Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and other like-minded people and politicians care for it or not, are collectively bargained. Players can bargain for rights with owners like other workers in many other businesses. NFL owners need help with their businesses from the players for antitrust reasons as well and know it.

The only reason there is a National Football League draft of college players is due to an agreement between the owners and players to hold the draft which is essentially an illegal restraint of trade. Salaries are just part of the agreement and because there has always been a let’s get the most money available at one time possible attitude that trumps any thought of what life is like in the post football career life of an NFL player. It is just an afterthought somewhere down the road.

The players association has done a very poor job of taking care of members in the football after life. Players now get five years medical benefits after their playing careers and then they are out on their own. There are countless stories of broken down football players on the public dole after the cheering stops.

Because of pre-existing conditions — which were more than likely caused by their job playing football — a majority of players are uninsurable and go on the public dole.  There has been some buzz that the players may be asking for 10 years of post-career health benefits but that is probably too little a time period; the real health problems seem to hit when a player is in his 40s. Tthe players have not yet discussed publicly what they want from the owners.

Perhaps it is time for Congress to really hold legitimate hearings, whether it is either the House or Senate Oversight and Government Reform Committee or the House or Senate Judiciary Committee and find out why players leaving an industry that brings in billions upon billions of dollars in revenue without a real post-career benefit package.

Politicians love to talk about what the “American People” want or about hearing from the “American People”; but rarely do they really listen or take care of the real needs of the “American People.” To those on both sides of the aisle, the “American People” would like to know why it is their responsibility to take care of the former employees or the players of America’s sports popular spectator sport in pro football’s afterlife.

Not every player gets a multimillion dollar contract and the average career doesn’t even last three seasons. But the medical needs of both average players and the superstars start not long after a career is done. Players joke that the initials NFL mean “Not For Long” and it appears they are right.

The present talks between the owners and players are following a natural progression. The owners want to reduce the players’ take of the gross revenue and knock down salaries by 18 percent on average. The owners would like to increase the regular season by two games to 18 and also have a rookie wage scale. The players want to keep status quo. They are disagreeing and both sides are saber rattling.

It is this status quo that is a problem for American taxpayers. It is a problem that House member Lamar Smith (R-TX) doesn’t think needs governmental intervention.  NFL owners (along with those of the American Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the American Basketball League) were given an antitrust exemption on September 30, 1961 that put a lot of money into the then 14 owners’ pocket. The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 allowed the National Football League to sell the television rights of all 14 members to a television network. Within a year, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle cut the league’s first national TV deal and that opened the floodgates of money into what was nothing more than a mom and pop store operation.

The AFL had cut a similar deal with the then struggling American Broadcasting Company.  There was an assumption that the AFL the 8-team TV package as one entity because of the 1922 decision by the United States Supreme Court which ruled that baseball was a game in the Baltimore Terrapins (of the Federal League) suit against the National League.  Even though the AFL began play a year before Congress granted the NFL an antitrust exemption the AFL assumed that it would receive the same treatment as Major League Baseball.

The NFL’s 1964 deal with CBS’ William Paley spurred NBC’s David Sarnoff to underwrite a lot of the costs of Hunt’s AFL after Sarnoff lost the bidding for NFL TV rights to Paley. Sarnoff gave the AFL money to compete with the NFL. By 1966, owners in both leagues decided that a bidding war for players’ services was becoming too cost and agreed to merge.

The NFL and AFL announced an intention to merge on June 8, 1966. Congress had to sign off on the merger (which was an anti-competition truce). Senator Russell Long and Representative Hale Boggs, both of Louisiana, traded their no votes to yes after Rozelle assured them New Orleans would get an expansion team. Congress passed the legislation as a rider on an anti-inflation bill and it was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in October, 1966.

It is a matter of historical record that the huge revenue streams flowing to major pro sports leagues today began after Congress passed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961.  This was nothing more than government involvement in private enterprise.  Congress needs to get involved in the same way with the NFL-NFLPA talks for a myriad of reasons. The discarded player post career health benefit issue and its cost to the “American People” is enormous and demands attention.

“There is more to come on the NFL shifting of health costs to the public, especially to State and Federal Disability programs, namely Social Security,” said Mel Owens, a former linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams from 1981-89 and now a practicing disability lawyer. “This will be the next big issue.

Remember, these players, as a group, are the most injured in society. They all have major orthopedic, internal and neurological injuries, and the most significant part of this is their age — they are all under 40-years of age when they leave the game. This puts the burden and cost on the government for many years, having to deal with the results of their injuries, such as multiple joint replacements, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, dementia and early onset of Alzheimer’s.

The insurance companies own cost estimate relative to the players injuries is over a billion dollars. This is their number not anyone else’s. The NFL is circumventing their responsibility and liability by shifting the long term disability cost to the State and Federal Government, thus driving up the cost of insurance for every person in America.

Why the players association has never taken care of former members in the football afterlife is open to some conjecture. There are two theories as to why that happened.  First, player agents wanted to make a quick buck and pushed for money over long term issues such as pensions and health benefits and wanted to get as much money as possible in representing a player fearing that players taking less money and leaving money for future health care would result in less commission for them because there would be less money available for salaries.  Second, the late Gene Upshaw, who was the Executive Director of the NFLPA, always made it a point to please players who were paying his salary and stated that his responsibility was to that pool of players from year to year. Upshaw seemed to distance himself from the retired players until push came to shove when it came to light that former association president John Mackey was suffering from a brain injury and needed assistance. Retired or discarded players have used Upshaw quotes such as “what are we supposed to do, fix every injury of every player?” to support their contention that the association didn’t care about the retired guys.

Both the NFL and NFLPA were shamed into creating the “88 Plan”, named after Mackey’s uniform number, in 2005 which provides up to $88,000 for institutional care and up to $50,000 in custodial care for players who are suffering from serious illnesses which may have been caused by football injuries. As of last October, the two sides had given a little less than $10 million to 132 former players. That $10 million figure is about one-one hundredth short of what Owens says is needed to take care of the former players.

Congress needs to haul in owners, members of the players association and agents and get everyone to testify under oath just exactly has happened over the decades of labor negotiations and collective bargaining agreements that has caused the “American people” to be so involved with the football afterlife.

Evan Weiner
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at evanjweiner@yahoo.com


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